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The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #27

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #27: “Horticultural Thunderdome”

Living in an older neighborhood has lots of interesting challenges already, as witnessed when the water main that blew out and left the front yard a sodden marsh last summer decided to go out entirely this spring. We were reasonably lucky, as February’s Icepocalypse left neighbors up and down the street with flooded-out living rooms and garages as pipes froze and thawed, and others discovered what subfreezing temperatures tend to do to electrical insulation that’s not rated for that sort of cold. (No fires, thankfully, but we’re seeing a lot of mood and porch lighting being torn out and replaced.) For the most part, it’s been the same with animal and plant life: the cold apparently thinned out the local squirrel population, but opossums clamber onto the porch to yell at each other and the cats with no sign of being affected by the freeze, and by the way the anoles and Mediterranean geckos act on the side of the house, you’d think they were campaigning for a reboot of the Mesozoic.

Things were considerably rougher for flora, particularly that better suited for areas further south. Dallas is right on the edge of safe growing zones for palm and saw palmetto trees, and neighbors with pools all figured “Let’s put palm trees in the back yard to add to the Polynesian ambiance.” That worked well since the last big freeze in 2015, which was over before anyone really recognized that it had arrived, but a solid week of subfreezing temperatures left those neighbors trying to figure out how to remove a 15-meter dead tree without hitting the pool, hitting the house, or requiring use of a crane. At this point, they’re better off pooling funds (pun intended) and just run that crane down the alley, plucking out palm carcasses like weeds.

The real problem, though, lies with actual weeds. Invasive exotics, to be precise. Being an older neighborhood, birds look at everything as a place to eat, rest, and nest, and that means they bring in all sorts of seeds from all sorts of plants, and many get established. This gets aggravated by those invasives that someone decides are suitably pretty or potentially useful, thus exacerbating the seed problem. Every little gizzard-bearing flying dinosaur in the area, with the possible exception of the two red-shouldered hawks who land atop my garage to yell at me as I’m trying to go to work, drags in more than their fair share of seeds, all lovingly scraped and scarified and tumbled with gizzard stones and grit, and 2021 is a particularly good year for them to find new places to take over. We don’t have kudzu yet, but two of the invasives could give kudzu a serious fight.

The first, morning glory (Ipomoea spp.) is about as ubiquitous in Dallas as roses in Portland or Spanish moss in Tallahassee, but these aren’t the gigantic-bloomed cultivated and domesticated variety grown for their lovely flowers. These produce much more subtle, but still beautiful, blooms, and the energy they’d use on ostentatious petals goes instead into vines that cover EVERYTHING. Pull them off shrubs and lawn furniture and vehicles left outside, and they’re back in a day or so, and Arioch help us all if they ever get a taste for blood.  Mowing and weedeating them just encourages them, and they have a wonderful habit of binding mowers and cutting blades.

And then we have the other green menace, scarlet trumpetvine (Campsis radicans), usually spread by yuppie homeowners told by Some Guy that a great way to hide telephone poles and other utility poles is to let them be covered by trumpetvine. Not only will the local lineman for the county want to set you on fire for doing so (trumpetvine sap causes contact dermatitis in many people), but the seeds are appreciated by a wide variety of birds, which then spread said seeds all over the area. Left unchecked, the vines collapse fences and squeeze between barriers, and most efforts to thin them back that don’t involve radioisotopes merely spread them further. Worst of all, since the roots spread through the toughest clay hardpan soil, new clumps pop up and start spreading meters from the original infestation, dislodging brick pathways and drowning bird feeders and barbecue grills with runners. As with morning glories, local garden centers sell trumpetvine to unassuming novices, thereby guaranteeing that subsequent residents curse their names years and decades after they’ve moved on and left their mess.

This year, possibly because of the freeze, both morning glory and trumpetvine are determined to take over. It’s not enough to pull trumpetvine: you have to let it dry until dead if it’s to be composted or mowed, and it thrives on weeding regimens that would get poison ivy to give up and die. Morning glory at least makes a good hide for assassin bugs and anoles, and it’s kept somewhat in check by leafcutter bees that strip big chunks from their leaves. Trumpetvine, though, has no controls, and the phrase “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit” is a regular one from people fighting it for a decade or more. Then, when it’s finally held to a dull roar, that’s when an unknowing neighbor actually pays real cash money for the horrible stuff because “I hate that telephone pole out front, and I hear it attracts hummingbirds.”

That leaves the only real option: Thunderdome. Along one fence wall, I’m trying a little experiment, and letting trumpetvine and morning glory beat each other. So far, the morning glory seems to be choking out the trumpetvine, but the trumpetvine apparently discovered that hiding underneath rosebushes and behind hibiscus trees was a reasonable alternative, and it’s discovered a horrible trick of running tendrils underneath mulch and then emerging in multiple spots. Not that it’ll do any good: two weeks ago, when Dallas was getting unseasonable rains, I planted sweet potato, and so long as they don’t form an alliance to remove the animal scum keeping them from their destinies, the morning glories and trumpetvine are in TROUBLE.

Upcoming Gallery Events

Now that the heat has kicked in, the weekend Porch Sales have moved inside for the duration of the summer, but they’ll go back outside later in September. The holiday Carnivorous Plant Weekends were so popular for Memorial Day and Independence Day Weekends that we’re reprising it for Labor Day, with the next Carnivorous Plant Weekend running on Saturday, September 4 from 4:00 to 9:00 pm and then on Sunday, September 5 from 10am to 3pm. As always, admission is free and masks are mandatory.

Outside Events

In other developments, obviously the big show of the year is going to be Texas Frightmare Weekend at DFW Airport in September, and then it’s time to head back down to Austin for an extended weekend. Being invited as a vendor for Armadillocon 43 brings on all sorts of comments (mine is “I feel like Anton LaVey getting an invitation to the Pope’s bat mitzvah”), but it’s been a very long time since Austin’s premier literary science fiction convention ran in October instead of the middle of August, and Austin is lovely in October.

Other News

In yet more developments, the Dallas Morning News Best in DFW vote is now going, and keeps going until September 2, and the Triffid Ranch is on the ballot under “Best Art Gallery” and “Best Garden Center.” The gallery isn’t automatically on the ballot for the Dallas Observer Best of Dallas Reader’s Poll, but it offers room for write-in votes, so do what thou wilt.

Shameless Plugs

One of the many reasons why I live in Garland, Texas, besides its obvious film reference, is that my town is just loaded with interesting food options. One of the absolute best came from discovering a regular Vietnamese food truck outlet at the Cali Saigon Mall at Jupiter Road and Beltline Road: unenlightened people may scoff or laugh at the concept of “Vietnamese tacos,” and they’re welcome to do so, because that’s just that much more for me. Anyway, should you decide to trundle out to the Dallas area for dinner, let me put a bug in your ear about Em & Bubba’s Home Cooking: As someone with 40 years’ experience in the subject, let me say that Em & Bubba’s barbecue brisket is some of the absolute best I have ever eaten, bar none. For vegetarians, they have a lot of options as well, and that’s not counting the other food trucks right alongside. This Saturday, after recovering from the Porch Sale, we’re probably heading there for dinner, and anyone caring to join us is welcome to do so.

Recommended Reading

Since we’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of the gallery’s move from Valley View Center, I’m going to have to dig out photos taken from those final days and add commentary on the ultra-slow-motion implosion of the mall. In the interim, I recommend picking up Capital by Mark Hage: for those who have never started a venue in an existing retail or gallery space, there’s an odd sense of archaeology that comes from the dribs and drabs left behind by previous tenants, sometimes ones gone for decades (mine was the surprising number of pennies dropped on the floor in the back storage area, as well as breaker box labels from the mall’s food court expansion in 1998), and Capital hits on that sense of mystery quite well.

Music

With the summer heat, pretty much the only way to get through August in North Texas is by dreaming of autumn. A touch of Emilie Autumn goes a long way toward that, as well as making a perfectly suitable soundtrack when the heat finally breaks.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #26

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #26: “Correlation and Causation Sitting In A Tree”

Most people salivate in anticipation of the traditional November/December holiday season, and others for the beginning of their favorite sportsball season. Out here at the Triffid Ranch, the year really only gets going in May. In Texas, we’re absolutely past the last chance of needing a jacket or winter coat, the worst of the early spring allergens have already blown on the south wind to Nebraska, and every other plant in the area is already waking up and blooming. We still have wildflowers, or at least until the heat really kicks in around Memorial Day, and the days are long enough that all of those essential activities that require daylight have a chance to get done. At night, it’s all about running around under clear skies with the windows down, as well as spotting the occasional bat or silk moth. Yes, the summer heat will start getting oppressive soon, but not now, and there’s so much to do before the heat drives us all inside.

This May, though, is full of anniversaries. The month of May is always full of anniversaries (high school graduation, divorce, quitting pro writing), but these are big milestones. In fact, most of these are the anniversaries that led to the Triffid Ranch happening in the first place. For example, 45 years ago this month, the whole journey started when my father accepted a position with the long-defunct company General Foods as a packaging engineer, which required a move from Michigan to upstate New York. Ten years later, the balance scale between staying in Wisconsin for a second horrendous winter and moving back to Texas after nine months away was dependent upon someone who is still very important to me, and her decision led to packing up everything that could be shoved into a Greyhound bus and spending the next 28 hours on the road. Ten years after THAT, right on the edge of the dotcom boom, the option was between staying in an increasingly hidebound and threadbare Dallas and packing a now-ex-wife, three cats, a savannah monitor, and a grapefruit tree into a rental truck for a high-speed blast to Portland, Oregon for a new job and new life. (While I loathed Portland at that time and escaped 18 months later, that was a fateful trip, as it allowed me to see my first carnivorous plants, the famed cobra plant Darlingtonia, up close. Five years later, that would be a catalyst to events that changed the rest of my life.)

A lot of anniversaries involved stresses that were particularly rough at the time, but turned out to be classic adventures in bullet-dodging. 30 years ago, I was called into my supervisor’s cube at Texas Instruments and informed that I was being laid off: the immediate financial and social stresses were ones that scarred for years, but I also escaped just before Texas Instruments sold its entire Defense Electronics Group division and shut down everything I’d been doing for the previous four years, and five years before the company’s CEO was scheduled to testify before Congress as to why the missile system on which I spent 60-hour weeks a year before didn’t work as advertised. Ten years later, the same thing happened with a contract position with Southwest Airlines, just before 9/11 crippled the entire US airline industry.

On a carnivorous plant level, this year is my lucky 13: for several years, I had been a booth babe for manga artist Lea Seidman at a Free Comic Book Day outdoor event in Dallas called CAPE, and started bringing various carnivores to let people know what I was doing in lieu of writing for science fiction magazines. That culminated with the CAPE organizers offering a table space to show and sell carnivores, and the Texas Triffid Ranch went from abstract to concrete. To this day, that’s why I refer comics enthusiasts to Zeus Comics, because their starting and running CAPE started a debt I cannot hope to repay. 

And so it goes to the present day. Looking back on those anniversaries is like looking back on a trail of shed snakeskins: if any had been left anywhere else, there’s no guarantee that the final output would have been anywhere near the same. It’s been a strange trip, and some of those snakeskins had more of an effect on me than on the people responsible for helping to peel them off, as it should be.

Other News

With the previous discussion of anniversaries, it’s necessary to mention the recent death of Michael G. Adkisson, the editor of the science fiction zine New Pathways from 1986 to 1992. The only thing that could be said is that if not for Adkisson and magazine editors and publishers just like him, I’d currently be a mediocre science fiction movie critic right now. And so it goes.

Shameless Plugs

It’s a matter of time before it’s safe enough to open the gallery to vaccinated individuals (probably following in the tradition of the great Dallas goth club Panoptikon on admission being dependent on an official vaccination record), so it’ll be time to bring out food and drink. Let me introduce you to The Homicidal Homemaker, with lots of possibilities perfect for Triffid Ranch events for the rest of the year. And oh yes, I have ideas far beyond making more prickly pear sorbet.

Recommended Reading

Two books coming across the desk at the same time that directly apply to future plans at the gallery, but you’d never think it. The first is The Art of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge by Amy Ratcliffe, and the second is Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier. If you keep checking back on future enclosures, you’ll understand why.

Music

Another one of the advantages to the current overload on streaming music services is coming across people that never, EVER would have shown up on Dallas radio, and probably never will. Add Danielle Dax to the list: there’s always more room in the rotating music list when working in the gallery.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #25

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #25: “Chicago: City of the Future!”

Originally published April 1, 2021

Last year, the plan for the Triffid Ranch was to start moving outside of the Dallas area. Shows in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio were a given, but the original idea was to expand to the first show outside of Texas with a debut at the New Orleans Oddities & Curiosities Expo last August.. Explanations as to why might be needed…for someone whose TARDIS broke down in mid-Devonian Greenland, and the wait for rescue was just long enough that getting up to speed in the present was too much aggravation. (And don’t worry: my grandmother is fine. She even rescued her favorite umbrella.) Suffice to say, with early plans to restart shows and events in 2021, a lot of events were kicked to autumn, and so many had no option but to schedule themselves on the very same weekend as others. (For instance, as much as I would love to show plants at the Deep Ellum Arts Fest, after finally making it through the backup list, this year’s Arts Fest runs the same exact weekend as Texas Frightmare Weekend, and Frightmare obviously takes precedence.) Combine that with a new day job to keep the plants in light and food, and that 2020 schedule looks a little threadbare.

Not to worry, though. The big out-of-state event was just upgraded. The Triffid Ranch is going to Chicago!

Very technically, it’s “going back to Chicago”: I lived in the suburb of Hazel Crest for a year, from the end of 1978 to 1979, where a lot of interesting stuff happened. John Gacy, filming of The Blues Brothers, the Blizzard of 1979, and the moment when two local film critics by the names of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel took their discussions on movies and movie trends to PBS. On a very personal level, this was when I personally encountered my first carnivorous plant: a Venus flytrap purchased in a local garden center. (As I relate at shows and events, it was doing great in Chicago, and then my family moved to Flower Mound, Texas at the end of 1979. The first time I watered that flytrap with Flower Mound tap water, the plant died within an hour, and I didn’t discover why for another 23 years.) Other than passing through in 1982 on the way to Michigan, and one transfer through O’Hare Airport in 1999, the opportunity to return hasn’t been available since then.

As for the event, it’s Chicon, the 80th World Science Fiction Convention, being held the weekend of September 1-5. Right now, everything other than the actual trip is tentative: I’ve volunteered for programming and for art show presentations, and current logistics involve figuring out how to move a truck full of carnivorous plant enclosures closer to the 45th Parallel than I’ve traveled in at least a decade. And yes, someone has already made the joke about the 300-pound Sontaran attorney.

One of the bigger reasons why this is so intriguing isn’t just to meet Chicago online friends in meatspace for the first time, and inflict silent vomiting in a few attendees assuming that I’m returning to pro genre writing. (As I tell my parents when they nag about moving “back” to Wisconsin, a place I left 35 years ago in May, I’ll return the moment the Dallas Cowboys win a shutout World Series pennant, and not a second earlier.) It’s also because of several cohorts who pointed out that the IGC Show, the country’s largest independent garden center show and convention, runs roughly at the same time. With news that the IGC Show might not have a 2021 event due to Illinois COVID-19 lockdowns, this leads to all sorts of mischief, er, plots, um, ideas. Yeah, IDEAS.

The reality is that both the concept of Worldcon and the IGC Show could use a boost, particularly to attract new audiences. Right now, both tend to skew toward the older side of the US demographic bell curve: I’ll be 56 when Chicon starts, and I’ll probably still be in the bottom 10 percentile of attendees sorted by age. (Thankfully, it won’t compare to the San Antonio Worldcon in 2013: for multiple reasons, I skipped out on being a vendor at San Antonio, and one of the most prominent was “If I wanted to waste a perfectly good birthday weekend listening to a herd of seventysomething xenophobes cry impotently about how the world changed without their written permission, I’d go to a family reunion.”) They both tend to be rather insular, with a lot of attendees worrying about the way things should be instead of what their customers really want. So why not merge them?

Hear me out. Anybody going through a publisher catalog, especially from science fiction publishers such as Baen and Tor, notices that science fiction needs a lot more biology, a lot more flowers, and a lot more exposure to interesting symbiotic and paraparasitic relationships. Anyone going through a garden center catalog notices that garden centers really need a lot more in the way of mysterious and surreal sculpture and topiary. A joint literary science fiction/garden center convention is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of pop culture: these two need each other more than they realize. Just look at these talking points:

Dealer’s Rooms. Worldcon not only needs a much wider variety of items for sale in its dealer’s room, but items that convince the longtimers to leave the bar for a while. The IGC needs items for sale and order for those desperately sick and tired of the twee in garden ornamentation. Roses, Tillandsia, carnivores, fluorescent minerals. Swords, dragons, robots, and wrecked starships. Plan things right, and edge out the book dealers who just sit in the corner and grump at anybody wanting a book published after 1970, and dealers on both sides would make a killing.

Music. The IGC Show is famed for its regular free rock concerts for all attendees, usually from acts who last hit major radio airplay back in the days of Reagan and Thatcher. Half of rock music of the last half-century has at least some influence from genre themes. DragonCon in Atlanta already has a reputation of (a) running on the same weekend as Worldcon and (b) hosting big concerts for attendees, so this is a perfect opportunity to amp things up slightly and get the longtimers out of the bar. I recommend a headliner of GWAR.

Cooking. Not only does Chicago offer some of the best cuisine in North America, but the IGC Show has lots of panels and demos involving new and existing vegetables and herbs. Worldcon attendees, though, have a reputation of being perfectly happy with $15 overcooked hot dogs from the convention hotel restaurant. Hot peppers, rosemary skewers, mesquite wood, wonderful cooking scents from the food tents out in the parking lot and inside the hotel, and something something out of the bar. 

Costuming. Okay, so the costumes at the IGC Show are accidental. Worldcon, though, has a reputation for attendees creating their own costumes that goes back all the way to the beginning of science fiction fandom. Lots of cross-pollination, pun intended, here: Triffids, Delvians, vargas, Krynoids, Vervoids, Vegetons, Pink Bunkadoos, Violet Carson roses, and Slaver Sunflowers, and who knows what attendees will think up after coming across hammer orchids, triggerplants, and cycads. And let’s face it: every garden center show could use at least a few Freeman Lowell and Dr. Pamela Isley cosplayers, just to make things interesting.

Okay, we have 17 months to make this happen, or die trying. And if it doesn’t happen in Chicago, it might have to be done, to a suitable scale, in Dallas. Heh heh heh.

Other News

Since all of the plants that survived February’s freeze are starting to emerge, it’s time to start up spring video presentations, particularly as the sundews, flytraps, and pitcher plants start blooming. Naturally, teachers, museums, or anybody with an audience of interested bystanders looking for something different are welcome to send an email to discuss setting up a unique virtual experience. (Now is also a great time for print, online, television, and/or radio interviews, too, because things might get a bit more exciting as the growing season gets going.)

Shameless Plugs
 
Well, the old computer had reached its planned end-of-life shortly after I received it, and that was a decade ago, so a new computer was called for, because there’s a lot that can’t be done with an iPad after all. Among many other things, this gave the opportunity to purchase the whole of the Affinity professional creative suite, Among other things, this gives the opportunity to start working on PDF zines on carnivore care, and some of the publishing options are going to be dangerous. Watch this space.

Recommended Reading
 
Regular readers already know about my love of wasps, and the book Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect by Eric R. Eaton. Besides being loaded with interesting wasp information, this book is one of a dying breed: a book that starts at a level of “almost no knowledge about the subject in the reader’s mind” without being patronizing or childish. If anything, the section on wasp fossils and relationships is worth buying it alone, because the illustrations and photos are absolutely top-notch.

Music

In the ongoing quest for both work music in the gallery and tunes for the bike ride to the gallery, the band T3rr0r 3rr0r kept turning up, much to the distress of anyone hearing it seep out from headphones. No matter: more for me. This is the soundtrack the 1990s were supposed to have, back before everything turned into dotcoms and whiner rock.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale #25 is copyright 2021 by Paul Riddell, and may be reproduced in its entirety and forwarded at will. The Texas Triffid Ranch is Dallas’s pretty much only carnivorous plant gallery, located in scenic Richardson, Texas, and is open by appointment. More information is available at www.texastriffidranch.com. Since nobody else read this far, the key for the device can be found on page 44 of the book Didn’t You Kill My Mother-In-Law? by Roger Wilmut and Peter Rosengard. It’s page 44: page 42 is a trap that initiates detonation immediately.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #24

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #24: “Aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy…”

Originally published February 22, 2021.

Well, wasn’t last week fun?

Right now, for anyone raising any sort of plants in North Texas, we’re not exactly happy campers. If the freeze had only lasted a day or two before returning to normal temperatures, we would have been all right. If the weeklong subfreeze hadn’t come with the world-famous statewide blackout, most of us would have done all right. As it was, though, both indoor and outdoor plants suffered alike, especially in houses and apartments where the temperatures went below freezing. Everything from daffodils to wheat fell before the cold, and we’ll probably still be cataloguing the damage by summer. 

Right now, the urge to give up is understandable. From this end, the freeze killed aloes, dragonfruit cactus, and hot pepper bonsai that were just about ready to show in the upcoming porch sale season, a Buddha’s Hand citron tree that had been a fixture in the greenhouse, and very possibly killed a Rio Texas Star grapefruit tree that I grew from seed in 2002. (As with up here, the final analysis of Texas’s citrus industry may take months, but it’s not looking good.) The freeze was brutal to native cactus, with everything from prickly pear to horsecrippler barrel cactus turned to mush. The only good side was that the freeze didn’t hit after fruit and nut trees, from peach to pecan, started to bloom. Even a jade plant at the gallery right next to the front door might not make it. At this point, all you can do is wait to see which plants and which portions of plants are still alive and which just pretended to be as they thawed out.

The urge is understandable, but resist it. Resist it with everything you have. You may mourn later, but right now, you have to give your plants a chance, and this goes for everyone facing weather-related plant horrors.

The first thing to do right now is observation. Brought in your favorite succulent and kept it in the garage, only for the garage went way below freezing? Your window-loving ficus chilled to the point where it lost most of its leaves? The last leaves on your Venus flytrap burned off? The best thing you can do right now is back off, make sure that what’s left is getting appropriate light and moisture, and leave it alone for a bit. Over the years, I’ve had plants that I was certain were goners after a weather-induced trauma, and was just about ready to dump into the compost pile when I spotted new growth. Sometimes, this takes weeks or even months, so just keep watching. If a plant frozen in February isn’t showing some kind of growth in June, the odds are pretty good that it’s permanently dead, but before then, it really could be pining for the fjords.

The second thing to do is triage. Get a good pair of shears or scissors, clean them well with isopropyl alcohol, and keep them on hand. In the meantime, go over the whole plant and note what looks dead, what looks iffy, and what looks all right. Don’t start cutting until you know for certain what is alive and what is dead, and don’t be afraid to wait a few weeks to make sure. When you’re certain it’s not coming back, though, prepare to remove it. Among other things, this allows light to reach otherwise shaded areas and encourage new growth.

The third thing to do is propagation. Exactly what to do with each plant is way beyond the scope of this newsletter, but unlike us animals, most plants are perfectly good at growing a full new plant from a single snippet, and you might have to go to that option. Yes, you lost the main portion of your plant and it might take years for that chunk to grow back to former glories, but you still have that plant. (This may be my only option with my grapefruit tree: cutting scions off the trunk and rooting them separately.)

Ultimately, though, all I can do is quote Canada’s answer to Doctor Who. Losing plants in a situation such as last week’s doesn’t make you inattentive or neglectful: if it’s the choice between saving your plants and yourself, you’re a lot more important. It’s not like we can cut off your fingers and grow new yous by propping them up in a flowerpot, right?

Other News

Since all of the plants that survived last week’s freeze are going to start emerging over the next month, it’s time to start up spring video presentations, particularly as the sundews, flytraps, and pitcher plants start blooming. Naturally, teachers, museums, or anybody with an audience of interested bystanders looking for something different are welcome to send an email to discuss setting up a unique virtual experience. (Now is also a great time for print, online, television, and/or radio interviews, too, because things might get a bit more exciting as the growing season gets going.)

Shameless Plugs

Those who remember the zine explosion from the late 1980s through the late 1990s might recognize the name “Joey Zone” from both his distinctive magazine covers and his regular review columns in publications ranging from Factsheet Five to Science Fiction Eye. Joey’s real talent, though, was collecting huge packages of cultural ephemera from all over and sending them to friends and correspondents: the occasional Triffid Ranch packages of books and other goodies were named “Joey Boxes” in his honor. After many years of getting on him about setting up an online presence, Joey Zone Illustration just went live, and while it’s obviously not complete (among other things, it’s missing a certain column header from the long-dead Film Threat Video Guide), it’s definitely a long walk through zine history.

Recommended Reading

Books on carnivorous plants are considerably more available than they were 20 years ago, as the groaning reference bookcase in the gallery attests, but they’re still uncommon enough that it’s a treat to come across a new one. Cultivating Carnivorous Plants by Natch Greyes is yet another reason why you’ll probably never see a Triffid Ranch book on the subject: what’s the point of writing a book that’s just a rehash of what better writers and researchers have already shared?

Music

It’s been nearly 20 years since the lead singer for the band Betty Blowtorch died in a car crash in New Orleans, and we’re all the lesser for it. The band’s first album, “Are You Man Enough?”, came out right at that point before the disintegration of the music industry monolith that controlled airplay in the United States, and streaming services now give a chance to imagine what would have happened had they survived the crash of the major labels and radio station syndicates of the 2000s. At the very least, after this week, the song “I’ve Been So Mad Lately” is a perfect gardening song while I’m sifting through the damage from the storm: it certainly isn’t safe for the day job.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #23

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #23: “Fungus Gnats and Dryer Sheets: A Case of News Churn”

Originally published January 22, 2021.

It hasn’t happened yet, but it will soon. Right at the moment in the North Texas area, the air is too dry inside and too cold outside for them to get going, but they’re waiting. By the end of February, they’ll flitter in your peripheral vision, and by March 15, they’ll be flying up your nose with every breath. Yes, it’s almost fungus gnat season.

That’s when the calls, the Facebook posts, and the general chat queries start. Many never use the term “fungus gnat,” instead describing them as “the little black bugs that fly like they’re drunk.” Sometimes, they note that the explosion came from a new potted plant, or a neglected one in an office that was suddenly watered along with the rest. Others only notice them when they show up close, flying in their erratic manner into eyes, nostrils, and open mouths. Still others only note how many dead bugs they find on windowsills, underneath aquarium lights, inside light fixtures, and along kitchen counters. From all of these, the flow chart paths all converge on one square: “How do I control them?”

For the most part, those encountering fungus gnats have no interest in the backstory: what most assume is one species is actually about six families of insect, all adapted to consuming fungi and occasionally algae. The flying adults are usually the only sign of an issue, but they’re nothing but packages to move genomes to new concentrations of fungus. Adults lay eggs on and in soil and substrates with a significant collection of fungus and then eventually die, and the eggs hatch into larvae that chow down on fungus filaments. (At this point, it should be noted that if you’re looking for mushrooms in a philodendron pot as a sign of fungus, you’ll generally only see those mushrooms when conditions are right for fungus to spread spores for reproduction. If conditions aren’t right to encourage mushrooms, or what are better described as “fruiting bodies,” you won’t see most fungi growth in a pot without a microscope or easy access to DNA sequencing gear.) Those larvae also feed on root tips of some plants: whether they do this deliberately or because the roots have a mycorrhizal relationship with the fungi is something for which I have yet to find an answer. Likewise, when the larvae metamorphose into adults, those adults take and transmit spores from other fungus, including the fungus responsible for “damping off” disease. Office dwellers hate them, houseplant enthusiasts hate them, greenhouse workers hate them, and you don’t even want to know what hydroponics enthusiasts think about them and the distantly related “drain gnats.”

This is the point where carnivorous plant people enter, or get dragged into, the game. Venus flytraps can’t waste their time with fungus gnats, but they’re enthusiastically consumed by all four types of pitcher plants if the gnats fly into the pitchers, they’re equally eagerly consumed by sundews and other sticky-hair trap plants, and they’re a major nitrogen source for butterworts. In fact, whether in cultivation or the wild, it’s hard to find a butterwort that isn’t covered with dead and trapped fungus gnats in varying states of digestion. The good news is that butterworts and fungus gnats go together like rum and Coke (or so I hear: I can’t drink), and butterworts have no problems with entrapping and converting those tiny chunks of protein into leaves, blooms, and seeds. But will butterworts or other carnivorous plants CONTROL them?

The reality, as anybody familiar with integrated pest management will tell you, is that while carnivores will gather up an excess of fungus gnats, setting out a sundew or butterwort next to your office Spathophyllum won’t do much to stop the problem. They’ll work so long as adults are out and flying, but they don’t do a thing about larvae living inside pots or the dirt just outside the door, and those eventually grow up and start the cycle anew. It’s not as if gardeners and houseplant growers haven’t tried, and the suggestions, ranging from spreading powdered cinnamon to spraying diluted hydrogen peroxide, can be found everywhere. The vast majority of those, though, are purely anecdotal, and usually assume effectiveness because the adults die off instead of doing anything to the larvae. The overwhelming majority of pesticide sprays have the same problem, and the user has the additional issue of those sprays killing everything from lacewings to lizards that catch the overspray. So what to do?

Well, I have a solution, one tested by experts, that’s remarkably effective. It affects fungus gnats only, and won’t injure or kill beneficial insects. It’s remarkably cost-effective, easy to apply, and available in grocery and department stores everywhere. No vile chemical smell, no dealing with insect corpses, and it won’t accidentally kill wild or domesticated animals if they get into it. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most readers already have some of this in your houses right now

You’re going to laugh.

I mean it. You’re going to laugh.

No, really. You’re going to laugh.

Okay, the secret is standard dryer sheets. 

See? I told you that you were going to laugh.

For the last two decades, commercial greenhouse operators related how putting down dryer sheets atop pots and trays kept down fungus gnat populations, but everything was anecdotal. In 2011, though, Greenhouse Product News published the first paper testing the effectiveness of dryer sheets on fungus gnats, and found…guess what, it works. (Sadly, this paper still isn’t available online, so no links, but please feel free to contact GPN for copies.) This was followed up three years later by Michigan State University, and both discovered that dryer sheets contained a compound called linalool, which was remarkably effective at repelling adult fungus gnats. The GPN paper also noted the presence of an aromatic compound that may prevent fungus gnat larvae from completing their metamorphosis from pupa to adult. Even better, this didn’t require huge amounts of material to get the desired effect.

On a purely anecdotal level, I can say that I had exceptional success with dryer sheets in a particularly tough environment. For those that remember the old Triffid Ranch gallery at Valley View Center, that mall had an absolutely horrendous problem with fungus gnats starting at the end of February and going until the middle of June, then starting again through October to the middle of November. Most of it was due to the various potted plants throughout the mall, which were haphazardly watered and cared for and probably hadn’t been repotted since the original owners of the mall abandoned their investment in the 2000s. The current owner wasn’t interested in any significant expenditure to deal with them, so fellow gallery owners had to grin (with clenched lips to keep the little monsters out) and bear it. Getting a roll of generic dryer sheets was the easy part: the real fun was hitting every last planter in the mall, including the mostly-hidden ones in the movie theater on the upper level, with at least one dryer sheet, and then switching them out once a week. Since the life expectancy of an adult fungus gnat is only a few days (I’m not sure if this is because of a lack of energy reserves or if their wings abrade from friction against the air and wear out enough that they can’t remain airborne), I figured that we’d start seeing positive results within ten days. We started seeing a drastic decrease in fungus gnats in about three days, to the point where I stopped applying dryer sheets in two weeks. When we had outbreaks later in the year, out came the dryer sheet roll, and they also were gone within a few days.

The reason I found this particularly interesting is bifold. The dryer sheet control technique has been around for decades, with hard science to back it up for one decade, and yet nobody outside of the commercial greenhouse trade seems to know about it. At plant shows and events, everyone is surprised at such an effective method. Friends keeping reptiles and amphibians, especially chameleon and tree frog enthusiasts, are even more surprised. Obviously, this is something that needs a larger audience: as with using carnivorous plants, it won’t control every insect that comes within the vicinity (this means “don’t cover your front yard with dryer sheets to keep the bugs away,” because we lost that war about 400 million years ago), but it should definitely help take the edge off for those with especial issues with fungus gnat maintenance. Even better, if this news takes off, then it’ll keep rolling around in news feeds and chat rooms (a phenomenon known as “news churn”) and become self-perpetuating, and when someone new to the field starts asking “So what do you do?”, everyone chirps in “Well, you KNOW…”

Other News

Friends and cohorts approving of the Delenn/GIR dynamic in Caroline’s and my marriage are passing on word about the death of actress Mira Furlan, and we join in the mourning. We met her once at one of Caroline’s jewelry shows in Galveston seven years ago, and we both pass our condolences, as inadequate as they are, to her family and friends.

Shameless Plugs

The definition these days of a Sissyphean task is “producing scientifically accurate dinosaur figures,” mostly because the goalposts seem to change every few days. That said, the crew at Creative Beast manages the nearly impossible: capturing the thrill of the 1970s Prehistoric Scenes model kit line from Aurora while pushing the edges of current theory on dinosaur appearance and behavior, and at a reasonable price. For lots of personal reasons dating back 40 years, a mountain accessory pack featuring the small predator Troodon had to come home, where it will remain as accurate as current research will allow. Sadly, that might be a few weeks, but that’s palaeontology.

Recommended Reading

A couple of chapters into The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World by Anthony M. Amore, and it’s easy to understand why Salvador Dali famously flooded the art market with autographed reproductions of his paintings to give palpitations to the art collector community. It also explains why so many people tell artists “Oh, your work is so INEXPENSIVE! You should charge a lot more!”, before wandering off without buying anything. And so it goes.

Music

Growing up a ridiculous distance from civilization meant missing out on a lot of music, and thankfully streaming services offer the same chance to catch up on bands that couldn’t afford radio station payola to get airplay the way cable allowed movie enthusiasts to catch up on films that you’d never have seen at the local two-screen. This causes deep dives down rabbit holes for acts that somehow never turned up over the years, and this month’s deep dive is the Dead Milkmen. A few months of their work in regular rotation, and jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick, you’ll never look at a burrow owl in the same way again.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #22

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #22: “The New Normal”

This time of the year, most newsletters of this sort are talking about winding things down, spending time with family, and “wishing you and yours” in the hopes that the impending new Gregorian Calendar year won’t be worse than the one we’re currently escaping. While I understand the reasoning behind being silent so the beast won’t hear you (a reason why I haven’t been to a blowout New Year’s Eve party since the end of 2001; well, that and an inability to drink), and the need to stay silent on future plans so the gods don’t laugh and point, let’s talk instead about strategy, so the gods are laughing and pointing at where you were and not where you are.

At the beginning of 2020, the original plan for the Triffid Ranch was clear. The end of a 4 1/2-year job contract with a company I loathed gave a perfect opportunity to strike out and turn the gallery into a full-time affair. The plan was to alternate between regular open houses and events both inside and outside the Dallas area, with the intention of regular visits to Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and even New Orleans. The science fiction and media conventions in which the Triffid Ranch started were hitting what many of us were calling “Peak Con,” a regular phase in the fandom life cycle where too many groups started too many conventions, right at the time when their most dedicated attendees were having to skip cons every weekend to focus on career and family. However, a slew of new art-related events were opening up at that same time, and so the idea was to go through 2020 by staying really busy, getting out to potential visitors, and seeing where things went next. That whole plan blew up shortly after show season got going, when I pulled into Austin for last March’s NosferatuFest just in time to hear the announcement that the big SXSW arts and tech festival was being cancelled due to COVID-19. That’s when you pivot.

And pivot the Triffid Ranch did. As plenty of social and political analysts have noted in the last few weeks, COVID-19 didn’t crash everything directly, but widened fissures that were already there. That was definitely true for the conventions and events that were a Triffid Ranch mainstay. For instance, the science fiction convention circuit went through some massive convulsions: the big media conventions that had taken most of the oxygen over the last 15 years suddenly discovered that virtual conventions didn’t work that well for them, and the same was even more true for the increasingly inbred regional cons that kept plugging along only because the attendees had been going for decades and didn’t want to break their run. Conversely, several new virtual cons started specifically because they were tired of gatekeeping both social and financial, and proved that a huge audience existed for their interests well outside of the previously recognized fandom. Maker culture, costumers, writer’s workshops, stage makeup artists…suddenly they’re realizing that they never needed to be restricted by the dynamics of old-school conventions, which were essentially unchanged since the 1930s, and we’ll be seeing the aftershocks of this for decades.

Now, it’s great that so many people are able to benefit from the shift to online events, but that doesn’t work that well for those with physical items for sale. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed on social media with friends and strangers doing their best Jay Sherman impersonations in the hopes of reaching an audience, and many are now realizing that the old “Do you have a business card?” was a way of saying “I like this, but I don’t want to buy it now, and I want to disengage without a scene.” While virtual marketplaces and virtual dealer’s rooms might offer an alternative, there’s always the issue with customers wanting to see an item in person, the joys of shipping and handling, and the reality that there’s a huge difference between someone hyping up an item they just discovered on Instagram versus actually paying for it. And with items such as Triffid Ranch enclosures, where shipping costs are often higher than the cost of the enclosure and with no guarantee that it wouldn’t be destroyed once it left the post office, it’s just simply not an option.

The good news is that things will probably change in 2021, and not just because of the promise of effective COVID-19 vaccines. The reality is that just as how things didn’t return to the old normal after the 1918-19 flu pandemic, they won’t be returning after COVID-19 is a nasty memory. Too much has changed, too many old habits are broken forever, and too many new ones established, and the trick now is getting people into new ones. While I don’t pretend to be anything approximating a prophet on how events in the 2020s will run, I can safely say that these might be A future:

Lots of outdoor events. Outdoor events get to balance between the tribulations of weather (particularly in Texas, where sudden tornadoes and hailstorms are a very legitimate concern through most of the year) versus customers feeling safer. This will only continue after COVID-19 vaccine use has gone as far as it can: the pandemic has only accentuated knowledge of the limitations of most air conditioning and circulation systems, especially with the number of patrons refusing to follow basic mask safety.

Lots of smaller events. Even before the pandemic, big art shows and events had the limitation of crowds so big that precious few people could get to vendor booths to see what they had, much less purchase anything. Likewise, really big shows had the limitation of people leaving one booth “so I can see what else is here,” and by the time they were finished, being too tired to want to purchase anything. Based on anecdotes from customers coming by last summer’s Porch Sales, I suspect that the big move will be toward smaller events of two to 10 vendors at any one location, and attendees traveling to the ones that most intrigue them.

Lots of careful selection. As overused and misused as the word “curation” was over the last decade, making a thoughtful analysis of who is offering what will be what gets most events going through the 2020s. This doesn’t just include making sure that, say, T-shirt vendors don’t overwhelm every other vendor at an event. A vendor may have a truly unique inventory without competition at a show (*cough*), but if that same vendor is at every last show in a 100-kilometer radius, that both diminishes the vendor’s brand and the shows’ brand. This goes double for events attached to a holiday or regional tradition, where it’s oh-so-easy to overwhelm vendors and customers with sheer volume.

Much more community. Finally, the biggest shakeout is going to be in creating and maintaining events where the vendors and the customers are looked at as much more than a source of revenue. This works all ways, with vendors offering exclusives for particular customers and events, customers dragging friends and cohorts to shows just so they can see, and events that highlight vendors as attractions in their own right and not just as a way to pay for big-name stars. Some existing venues, such as Texas Frightmare Weekend, are going to become business case studies on how creating real community is an unquantifiable but essential part of running and maintaining large events. Just as how it’s much harder to maintain a 10-gallon aquarium in the long run than a 100-gallon, the successful small events are going to have to work harder at it, but the returns will more than make up for the effort.

Is this a roundabout way of saying that the Triffid Ranch has plans of its own for 2021? Maaaaaybe. The important part is to borrow a quote, “We all hang together, or we all hang separately,” and stick with it.

Other News

In carnivorous plant news, some may remember last summer’s experiments with studying carnivorous plant fluorescence with a grad student’s budget, and Dylan Sheng at Plano Carnivorous Plants has taken that work to exciting new levels. In particular, he was photographing Heliamphora pitcher plant fluorescence, and even noting that some species had nectar that fluoresced as well. His work had great confirmation with a new paper by Michal R. Volos on Heliamphora fluorescence in situ, helping to demonstrate that this happens with wild and captive plants. Suffice to say, keep an eye on Dylan’s future research: he’s someone to watch within the carnivorous plant community, and I’m very proud to call him a friend.

Shameless Plugs

Speaking of Texas Frightmare Weekend earlier, I’d be remiss in not mentioning that Loyd and Sue Cryer of Frightmare are now running their own horror-related storefront, Frightmare Collectibles, featuring a grand collection of autographed photos, DVDs, VHS tapes, and assorted weirdnesses gathered from around the world. Remember the mention above about outside Triffid Ranch events? Loyd and Sue recently hosted their first outdoor event by their location in Justin, Texas, and while it was far too cold this time to bring out plants, expect to see carnivores at future events once things start to warm up in spring.

Recommended Reading

Now that the holidays are nearly over, it’s time to get back to the construction side of the gallery and get to work on new enclosures, and the various books from Rinaldi Studio Press on model kit weathering and detailing are essential inspirations for those. Michael Rinaldi has spent the last few years not only mastering new weathering techniques but putting everything he can into books that focus on one single kit and show how those techniques can be applied elsewhere. While they last, I highly recommend snagging his single model volume Fish Submarine, if only for ideas and atmosphere for other artistic pursuits.

Music

The late 1990s weren’t a good time for rock music in the States, but Powerman 5000’s combination of heavy riffs with science fiction themes was a wonderful respite from the overwhelming majority of whiner rock bands from 1995 to 2000, all of which seemed required to have at least one song with the theme “Mommy Won’t Let Me Buy Heroin With Her Credit Card.” One of the statements on the general worthlessness of terrestrial radio over the last 25 years is that not only is the band still together and still producing albums, but those new albums are so much more alternative than what’s being played as such over the air. Speaking from experience, not only can you do much worse than rock out to “V Is for Vampire” when starting work at a new day job, but it’s great for keeping pace on a bike commute to the same.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #21

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Installment #21: “The Saga of Simon”

With the end of November comes the end of the main growing season. The Venus flytraps and North American pitcher plants are snug in their beds and going dormant, the lights in the gallery were just switched to the winter schedule so as to encourage blooming in the spring (that’s a surefire way to get blooming in Heliamphora, especially since the gallery has no outside light to interfere with their photoperiods), and with the approach of what Dallas calls winter weather (we might actually go below freezing this week), it’s time to rest for a minute. That is, if Simon will allow it.


For those who missed the news, Simon is the new cat. We adopted him a little over a year ago, shortly after Leiber died. With him in the household, we now have two black cats, which makes my wife Caroline exceedingly happy. Alexandria, our other cat, enjoys having someone to roughhouse with, as Leiber wasn’t up for much of anything besides sleeping in his last year, and she now has a partner with whom to explore the garage when we’re home for the night. He’s a perfect little companion, and would be even better if he were a cat. Instead, I’m certain we adopted a seriously mislabeled black Labrador.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Simon is dumb or anything. As much as I miss him, I was the first to acknowledge that Leiber was so unlike his namesake that if he got any dopier, I was going to rename him “Doctorow.” Simon doesn’t trip on the carpet pattern or forget which end goes into the food and which end goes into the litter box. No, the adjective that best describes Simon is “goofy.” “Fall off the scratching post” is typical for cats. Simon is “forgetting that he has retractile claws and falling off the side of the bed” goofy. “Beg for human food and then remember that he doesn’t like human food” goofy. “Run in front of his humans in the dark and then flop to be scritched in the dark” goofy. “Figure out how to get into the attic and then howl like a basset hound because he doesn’t want to have to go back down the way he came in, and then hide under the roof supports out of range when we go up to rescue him” goofy. Oh, and then there’s “going berserk when opossums wander up onto the back porch because he wants to chase them” goofy. He’s not dumb, but he doesn’t act like a cat. Acknowledge that he’s just a dog with a bad label, and suddenly his habit of being unable to be pet because he so desperately wants to lick the petter’s hand suddenly makes sense.

Now, Simon is in fine company. Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Gardens is known just as much for her dog Kitty as for her miniature garden guides. Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster has constant stories involving her multiple critters. The Sarracenia Northwest newsletter has regular updates on their Sarracenia Pup. Jeff VanderMeer‘s cat Neo has a larger fan base than he does, and will probably get a deal with Netflix sooner, too. Everyone who meets Simon loves him. It’s just that the people who know and love dogs particularly fall in love with him, and Caroline gets grumpy when they note that he’s the most doglike cat they’ve ever met.

Me, I just acknowledge that Simon is a dog and leave it at that. Whether he’s fetching or wanting to go for a run (he loves surfing rugs so much that our next house may have to have hardwood floors just for him), he’s typical Simon, so I just encourage him to be who he is. Caroline, though, has issues with my encouraging him with “good puppy.”

“Simon is not a dog. He’s a KITTY.”
“Sorry, but he’s a dog. He gets into the garage and climbs into the car because he wants to go for a drive.”
“HE’S A KITTY.”
“What’s so bad about his being a puppy? Are you trying to tell your son that he can’t be his own person, and he has to go with what you say he is?”
“Do you want to give him a neurosis? He’s a KITTY.”
“Okay, then.” (Look over at Simon.) Okay, Simon, what do have to say about this?”
“Woof.”

Other News

Other News

In barely related news, exactly a year and a day after the last one, your humble chronicler has a new day job. The particularly good news is that this shouldn’t affect the gallery in the slightest, and the gallery shouldn’t affect the day job, either. That said, expect a lot of new projects: it’s amazing how many ideas get doodled out during staff meetings.

Shameless Plugs

I’ve plugged the considerable talents and tastes of my Canadian little sister Tristan Riskseveral times, but for those looking for something whimsical with which to get the taste of 2020 out of their mouths, I’d like to recommend giving her new Nonesuch figure line a viewing. Caroline proudly displays her Nonesuch in her studio, and I suspect that she may need another, because.

Recommended Reading

I should be saving this for the ongoing Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions guides, but it’s no surprise that the late Ray Harryhausen was a major influence upon Triffid Ranch enclosures, and Ray was one of the many childhood heroes I accidentally and inadvertently scared the hell out of (a list that included Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Harlan Ellison, and Johnny Rotten) in my sordid youth. If you can get to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to view the Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema exhibition, do so, but if you can’t, the accompanying catalog of Harryhausen artifacts, full of anecdotes from his daughter Vanessa, is essential reading.

Music
Long nights in the gallery require lots of music, and due to an odd form of aphasia, I have a much better time concentrating on certain tasks with music with no lyrics whatsoever. That’s why the music of Peter Roe gets regular play on weeknights, and why his album Time Traveller hasn’t become the basis for a whole movie is beyond me. Go load up via your favorite streaming service, and thank him for me if you know him.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #20

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on October 16, 2020.

Installment #20: “An Ode to a Plastic Watering Can”

In the greater scheme of things, especially these days, it’s not a big deal, but it’s time to mourn just a little. After 31 years and innumerable liters of water, my first watering can died of age-related wear and tear, and it deserves a fair eulogy.

The long strange trip that currently ends with the Texas Triffid Ranch originally started in the spring of 1989. Like most Gen Xers, I previously had precious little time for gardening both because of endless hours of doing the zut work in my parents’ gardens over the years and with the general “I don’t have time for the likes of YOU” attitudes of garden centers at that time. One day at the grocery store, though, I found a packet of luffa squash seeds dumped on a shelf where someone had decided that they didn’t want to take it back to where they’d picked it up, and remembering reading a magazine article about a week before about how those odd sponges occasionally offered for sale came from a plant and not from some odd sea creature, I figured that I didn’t have anything to lose. Besides, I was working nights: back then, that meant that a weeknight home life consisted of watching the one or two television stations that hadn’t signed off at midnight, reading, or staring at the ceiling.

Raising luffa squashes was definitely a diversion.
That year’s gardening plan was about as pathetic as you could expect from a pre-Internet 22-year-old with no guidance and no mentorship. Said luffas were planted in reused gallon milk jugs full of potting soil purchased from the 24-hour grocery store next to my apartment, with lots of “compost” (orange peels and dead refrigerator leftovers) in the bottom, with no idea of what the adult plants looked like or what they needed. That first year, expectedly, was a nightmare, but one of the side benefits was realizing that watering a good dozen jugs every day meant needing a sturdier container than another recycled milk jug. This meant making another trip to that 24-hour Skaggs Alpha-Beta and grabbing a watering can from its “Seasonal” aisle.

The can itself wasn’t anything special, but it was. That year, several grocery stores in the Dallas area carried the same green plastic watering can with a white plastic rose (sprinkling rose, not flower rose) on the end, with a stout handle and a sturdy short neck. Apparently multitudes of younger gardeners than I have very fond memories of their grandmothers using that same style of watering can, and more memories of said grandmothers searching for a replacement when it finally wore out. In my case, it was large enough to be practical for apartment gardening without necessitating constant trips back to the sink for refilling, short enough that it could get into tight places, and tough enough to handle sitting on an apartment porch in a North Texas summer without cracking or degrading. For what I was trying to do, it was perfect.

Even better, it kept being perfect. The next year included a move to a new apartment with a much larger balcony, which necessitated a much wider collection of plants. During the winter, that can was essential in watering a big philodendron chunk I had rescued, and that plant stayed with me for years. That can stayed with me for a further move to Dallas’s Exposition Park, where it was invaluable in assisting the owners of the long-defunct Club No in turning a former dry cleaners storage area into a vine-covered back patio. It moved with me to Portland, Oregon, and then back to Texas. It lasted through two marriages, the whole of my writing career, several subsequent moves, and the beginnings of the Triffid Ranch as a hobby with delusions of grandeur. Even after the start of the gallery, it saw use in the greenhouse for watering individual plants for shows and events, and it acted as if it would last forever.

Well, it lasted until it didn’t. One day while ladling out rainwater from one of the rain barrels, it started to leak. That little watering can, which had survived so much, finally blew out along the bottom edge, both from a loss of plasticizers over the last three decades and general wear, and attempting to fix it with silicone or epoxy putty just meant that it would blow out again in another spot before too much longer. It was relegated ceremoniously to the recycling bin, with the hope that after being chopped and reconstituted, no matter the item, it is appreciated and loved as much as that can was.

Hail and farewell, watering can: I’ve searched for a month for a comparable can, and know I probably won’t find one as great as you were.

Shameless Plugs

A word out for an old friend and friendly adversary: folks in the Portland area may be familiar with tax lawyer and desperately needed blogging gadfly Jack Bogdanski, and he and I have been friends from a distance for about a decade. Although we may disagree fervently on specific issues all over the place, one of the reasons why I respect him so much is that he has the same change-it-or-lose-it love for Portland that I have for Dallas, and at the same intensity. Mr. Bogdanski famously quit blogging several years back in order to focus on serious law research, but he’s now back, he’s continuing his wild swings between Portland politics and little joys (his recent discussion of analog music was wonderfully nostalgic), and I have a desperate need to take him out for dinner and thank him for playing Harlequin to Portland’s City Hall Ticktockmen once it’s safe to do so.

Recommended Reading

The latest Spectrum fantastic art collection just arrived, and that’s all I’m going to say other than “Buy it now.” Next year, I AM entering the competition.

Music

One of the good things about having friends who are so much cooler than I’ll ever be is getting exposure to all sorts of cultural detritus that wouldn’t have floated this way otherwise. That’s why I have to thank the Canadian actress and model Tristan Risk for turning me onto the garage surf band the Neptunas, because the band’s latest album is a very welcome antidote to the usual impending winter blues. I suspect that it’s time to pay royalties to play their newest album at the next big gallery open house (either November or December), because life is too short not to.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #18

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on June 19, 2020.

Installment #18: “Faces of Meat”

We’re right on the cusp of summer in Texas, although for all intents and purposes that started in the middle of May and won’t let up until the middle of October. Out at the gallery, that means that the air conditioning pretty much runs all day, with things getting worse in August and September as the sun shifts to the south and the entire southern wall of the gallery turns into a convection oven. It’s not much better in the greenhouse: the only difference is that greenhouse film stops the constant drying south wind that turns most of Dallas into beef jerky, which the plants love. The plants love it, but the sweat glands don’t.

Even in the worst of it, life continues: plant, animal, and fungus. The best part is the motley crew of visitors that keep coming back, whether out of expectation of food, curiosity, or other, more obscure reasons. It’s time to introduce some of the background characters.

To start, while the ongoing migration of the suburbs across North Texas disrupt innumerable native life forms, some take advantage of the world of ranch homes and lawn sprinklers and move right in. This includes the introduced Mediterranean gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus), which can be found under any light at night capable of attracting insects, and the native Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis), which patrols those areas during the day. Carolina anoles are famed for their coloration changing abilities, thus explaining their common nickname of “American chameleons,” even if their range of colors and patterns don’t come close to those of true chameleons. What’s not so famed, and deserves more recognition, is that Carolina anoles have a wide range of oversized personalities. Anoles will not drink still water and depend upon dew, rain, or other splashed water for sustenance, including spray from hoses and sprinklers. This led to one big male that lives in a grapefruit tree in my back yard training me to water him: he sees me with a garden hose, and he promptly goes into a full display of dewlap-flashing to get me to spray him down.

The real antics, though, come from a big male who lives on my front porch. Named “Guy,” as in “Gardner,” this galoot alternates between overseeing the front of my house (anoles are highly territorial, with males claiming individual spaces and doing their utmost to protect them from interlopers) and letting me know who’s really in charge. Now, he knows that actually doing more than pose and threaten is a bad idea, with the end result being comparable to that of his namesake, but he can’t resist. He doesn’t challenge my wife, the postman, or cable solicitors. He challenges me, because I think he knows that I’m getting as much entertainment as he is.

Another resident with an unexpected broad personality lives at the gallery, and comes out to visit during the flash sales every Sunday. Jumping spiders of the genus Phippidus are completely harmless to humans, settling for feeding on small arthropods, but they have a curiosity more expected from mammals and birds than from a spider. This one in particular apparently thought I was absolutely fascinating, and after being moved for safety to atop a pitcher plant, was determined to get back to my elbow, flashing his palps in an obvious attempt at some sort of communication. I couldn’t figure out what it was trying to communicate, and still can’t, but so long as it keeps coming out to the tables on Sundays, it’s always welcome to keep trying.

Nearly everybody in horticulture has stories about the greenhouse cat: the one that moves in, figures “this is a pretty good deal,” and promptly takes over. For the last two years, this Creamsicle menace spends his winter evenings in the greenhouse, sleeping on potting benches until he decides to go home. In the summer mornings, he camps atop a smoker near the greenhouse to oversee watering operations and occasionally demanding ear-scritches. He doesn’t pick fights with my cats, his most outstanding damage comes from cat fur atop the lawn mower (he apparently decided that the grasscatcher bag is the perfect hammock), and he acts as a referee when opossums get into the greenhouse and start screaming matches at each other and at their own asses. He’s absolutely indispensable, his owner is thrilled that he’s camping out in a place where he’s appreciated and valued, and he’s probably going to be the first Triffid Ranch fulltime employee once I figure out how to get him on a W-2 form. best of all, as of last week, I learned his name is “Baby,” which beats out my naming him “Benji,” and to which he responds about as well as a cat will to any name. Yes, you can tell that the beasts have me well-trained.

Other News
Members of Dallas fandom of a certain age will most likely recognize the name of “Ogre”: for those who weren’t part, Ogre was an essential component of local conventions and music through the Eighties and Nineties, particularly when he worked security. If his hair, bulk, and the carefully affected lower canine popping from his lip didn’t explain his nickname, there was the bison femur he carried to enforce his authority as Someone With Whom You Do Not Want To Mess, complete with a rawhide thong with the other end attached to his wrist so that, as he put it, “I don’t lose it if the blood makes it slippery.” Despite or probably because of that, Ogre and I became friends pretty much from the moment we met in May 1989, and he remained a good and dear friend even after I quit writing, when most people suddenly cut me off as if they were afraid my condition was communicable. Even when health issues prevented him from coming out to shows to hang out, I always made sure to have a chair on hand for him to sit, because it wasn’t a real party until Ogre got there.

(And then there was the famed 2000 fundraiser where if contributions reached a certain level, Ogre was going to stand on the intersection of LBJ Freeway and Dallas North Tollway on a particular Monday morning in a Sailor Moon outfit, singing “I’m A Little Teapot” to the morning commuters. As soon as he told us all that the only way he was wearing a Sailor Moon dress was wearing it commando, contributions to an identical fundraiser that promised that he’d never do this doubled the original. Me, I threw in $20 into both: at the time, I was commuting up that stretch of Dallas North Tollway every morning, and that trip was really, really dull otherwise.)

Anyway, my dear friend died on May 18, and this newsletter is dedicated to him. If Valhalla exists, I can see him at the best banquet table, pulling out the odd liquor concoction everyone referred to as “Ogre’s Blood” and making sure that everyone got some before he put up the bottle. Hail and farewell, dude: life is going to be a lot less interesting without you here.

Shameless Plugs

Because we’re all hurting, and because the Triffid Ranch isn’t the only reason to visit Dallas when it’s safe to do so, the Shameless Plugs section keeps on, well, plugging. This newsletter, the two you should be watching are Visions of Venice, the glassware retailer located right next door (and the best business neighbor a boy could ever ask for), and Blu’s Barbecue, which I promise you makes the absolute best collard greens you’re ever going to find west of Memphis. (Blu’s barbecue and sides are all exemplary, but if you’re getting on a plane and crossing the International Date Line to visit Dallas, those collards are the best reason to pay for First Class.)

As an additional plug, the Dallas goth club Panoptikon already has a special place with the Triffid Ranch (co-owner Jiri forgets more about carnivorous plants in his sleep than I’ll ever be able to learn), and the ongoing shutdown has hit it as hard as every other club in the area. That said, the crew has become very proactive with regular Friday and Saturday night events via Twitch, and the Friday night streams are now essential listening while I’m working at the gallery. When things get better and you’re hopping that flight to Dallas for glassware and collards, do it on a Friday so you can stop by.

Recommended Reading

One of these days, I’ll get down to writing that essay on how much science fiction design over the last 45 years owes to the modelbuilders working for Gerry Anderson on such television shows as UFO and Space: 1999, but until then, go snag a copy of Martin Bower’s World of Models ASAP. For those unfamiliar with the name, Mr. Bower was a model builder and designer for dozens of movies, television series, and assorted sideprojects: most are familiar with his team’s work on the shuttle in Alien, the various alien ships in Space: 1999, and almost everything in Outland. For anyone looking for more particulars on kitbashing for science fiction, or merely looking for inspiration for fantastical art from the days before CGI poisoning was a thing, this book is worth every pfennig. (For those familiar with the Jason Heller book Strange Stars, the connection between rock & roll and science fiction gets even more entangled when discussing commissions between Bower and Roger Dean, the prog rock album cover artist. Trust me: it’s worth it.)

Music
Having first come across her work as part of the band Angelspit, listening to Amelia Arsenic‘s solo albums are now essential greenhouse music, and will probably remain so for a while. When working with carnivorous plants, good dark music, preferably from Australia, is almost a prerequisite.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #17

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on April 28, 2020.

Installment #17: “The Return of Edgar Harris”

Almost exactly years after we first made our acquaintances, I finally heard back from my old friend Edgar Harris. Before he called, I thought possibly he was in Los Angeles, working on a new TV project with his uncle Cordwainer Bird or in Colorado with his Uncle Raoul, testing the absolute limits of the cannabis genome. Nope: he’s currently holed up in Chicago with his uncle Slats Grobnik, running elaborate cryptography experiments in the guise of sidewalk chalk murals. Well, Edgar does the experiments: Uncle Slats just keeps a lookout for the authorities, particularly for homeowner association control freaks and other Karens. Between the two, they’ve got a couple of psychology papers in the works if they ever decide to publish, as well as a deep understanding of the upper range of commercially available paintball guns.

Anyway, we got caught up on our particular projects, and then wondered if anyone was going to learn anything from the current COVID-19 shutdown before comparing notes as to what 21st-Century trend would be the first to die in the new normal. Me, I argued “the open office,” not because the idiot MBAs promoting the idea care about their employees, but because the people pushing it the most don’t have their own offices to hide in when everyone else gets sick. “Trust me: the moment some senior VP having to use a hot workstation while visiting a subsidiary branch is going to lose it the second someone else coughs around them.” I then asked Edgar what he thought was going to end in the ashes of the COVID bonfire. He went quiet for a few seconds, and said “The old people hanging out at the supermarket all summer, telling people ‘It’s HOT’ over and over.”

”Well, yeah. The last thing they’ll want to do is hang around a supermarket and risk catching this.”

”No, you don’t understand. For the first few weeks of shutdown, everyone stayed inside. Seriously inside. You couldn’t go into a movie theater or a diner or a nonessential store, to the point where restaurants started stacking up tables and chairs so Karens wouldn’t just sit down and expect to be served. That meant that everyone was online.”

”Okay…”

”It’s not just that you run out of stuff to watch on Amazon Prime. Right now, half of America is learning about that one guy on every street who slurped up all of the available Internet bandwidth because he was downloading hentai at 3 in the morning, because now THEY’re up at 3 in the morning, too, and they’d like to be able to check their email. You get on Facebook and NextDoor and realize that half of your neighbors shouldn’t be trusted with pointed sticks. You’ve gone through the Amazon shopping sprees, the furious checks with FedEx as to what the hell happened to your Amazon packages and did the FedEx delivery guy just drop them in a creek, and you’ve baked every form of bread ever devised by man. In fact, NOBODY wants to see your sourdough starter unless it’s developing tool use. It’s hard to focus on online education when you’re wondering how long before you’re racing motorcycles across the Australian outback with a Mohawk and buttless leather chaps.”

”Reasonable.”

”So being outside…”

”So the one thing you can do through most of America is go outside. Go get some exercise. Fresh air and nature, so long as you’re maintaining social distancing. Get out on the sidewalk, get on a bike, start a garden. Pull out that telescope that’s been in the box since 1997 because you don’t have airplanes in the way. Pull out the grill and shout over the fence at your neighbor, because you haven’t talked to a fellow human who wasn’t on Skype or Zoom in a month. Go out looking for new lichens or pond turtles or heron nests, because you just discovered that Netflix decided to kill the second season of Daybreak and you don’t want to scream inside the house and scare the cat.

“And here’s where it gets fun,” Edgar said. “You‘ve got all of these people outdoors that wouldn’t have gone outdoors otherwise. A year ago, they would have started bicycling, and quit after the first trip when they woke up with a sore butt. Now, they don’t HAVE to be somewhere other than ‘out,’ and that sore butt on the first day is a reasonable price for getting away from the smell of sourdough starter. You get out to the back yard because your SO is putting the third coat of lacquer on the dog or teaching the kids how to make gunpowder, and within a month, both you and the yard look like one of those Worker’s Paradise bas-reliefs from 1950s Russia. Even when you go back to work, you’ll have something to talk about besides which VP is stabbing random passersby with hatpins.”

”It’s preparing them for summer at the best time possible, when it’s not already ‘MY FACE IS FLAMING GAS’ hot. They’ve already gotten used to the sun, and the bugs, and to walking five miles uphill because they couldn’t stand the smell of dog lacquer. They’re not ready for the Tour de France, but the thought of bicycling in the middle of the day isn’t immediately horrifying. Better, they start paying attention to the weather so they don’t get caught in sudden storms.

”Hm. So what does this have to do with the ‘It’s HOT’ people?”

”Everything, dude. They could get away with it before because of 50 years of central heat and air. The typical grocery store customer in Dallas in the Before Days was inside all of the time. The only time they’d go outside was to go from their car to the nearest door at work and then rush back to the car to go home. They didn’t even go outside to pick up the newspaper in the morning because they who gets print newspapers any more? If they got cornered at the grocery store and lectured about the heat, they weren’t responding out of sympathy. They were responding because they were cornered in the one place where they couldn’t get out of the sun, and they’d agree to go to a Maroon 5 concert if it meant not having their brains boil out of their heads.”

”But wait. The screechers have been outside, too.”

”Yeah, but they’re making noise because they’re wanting everyone to agree with them. They don’t want a response other than ‘Oh, dear, yes.’ The moment someone stops and says ‘It’s Dallas in July; were you expecting thundersnow?’, and they’ll be stunned. You get a hundred people an hour telling them ‘Oh, this isn’t HOT,’ and they’ll never return.”

”Now that’s an idea. Set up speakers that randomly spout ‘Shut the HELL up’ at the screechers, like the speakers on the Kremlin to keep crows from skating on their claws off the towers.”

”We might keep them around, though. The screechers made the place sound and smell like a pterosaur rookery. With all of these new gardeners around, they’ll need guano for their roses, right?”

Outside Events

Speaking of Texas Frightmare Weekend HQ, the festivities started early with a segment on April 25 that featured video from within the Triffid Ranch, as well as a lot of the patter that most Frightmare regulars already know very well. That’s in addition to the new Triffid Ranch Twitch channel, which will be expanding quite a bit in the next few months. Hey, I’m tired of the smell of dog lacquer, too.

Other News

Back at the beginning of the century, during my pro writer days, I wrote columns for several magazines that had a sadly typical attitude toward their subscribers. The first places to get the latest issues were big bookstore chains, with the magazines jammed into plastic bags full of all sorts of swag, and people who actually put down money in advance to get those magazines delivered to their houses got them about a month later and sans freebies. (The contributors who produced the content that made the magazines purchase-worthy would usually get their comp copies a month after that, and that was still faster than when we’d finally receive the checks that were supposed to be drafted “30 days after publication.”) Subscribers would write to me asking if I knew a way that they could get the same poster or CD-ROM that was included with the newsstand copies, because they couldn’t get a response from anybody else at the magazine, and I’d forward their request to someone who I learned later had no intention of doing anything. I even got rather vocal with one editor about this, and his take was also very typical: “We’ve got their money, so the publisher doesn’t care what they want.” And yet so many of these publishers had the nerve to look surprised when the print magazine market started to implode with the advent of the first smartphones.

Anyway, I thought about that a lot with a recent newsletter subscriber drive that included a free Triffid Ranch poster to new subscribers. For those who read this far without deleting it, here’s a thank-you for subscribing. The first ten people who write back with a viable mailing address get a free poster, and that offer will be extended with each subsequent newsletter: I’m not asking for anything in return other than a mailing address. Just look at this as an appreciation for everyone who subscribed in the first place, and I hope that this will be just one of many such rewards for continuing to read this silliness. Thank you all.

Shameless Plugs

A new section: it’s time for an expansion of the last newsletter, in which it’s time to share people, places, venues, and objects that need a little extra love right about now. Near the top is the Cedars Union, an arts incubator on the south side of downtown Dallas specializing in short-term artist spaces. For local food, you can’t go with Kosher Palate, which celebrates Dallas’s kosher barbecue tradition. With places like these, you can understand why I stay in Dallas.

Recommended Reading

One of these days, I’ll have my skills to the point where I can enter enclosure photos in the Spectrum Awards for fantastic art. Maybe. Of course, after going through the Spectrum 26 anthology, every time I think I’m to that level, the artists in this year’s collection make me realize how far I still need to go. Don’t look at it as discouragement. Look at it as very positive reinforcement.

Music

Until very recently, it hadn’t occurred to me that for all of the seeming democratization of contemporary music from just 20 years ago, that the new models of music distribution would make musicians work even harder to get paid than before. I definitely didn’t know about the various streaming services that did with music what the old Borders bookstore chain did with books and magazines: pay when they feel like it, and a fraction of what was actually owed. With the ongoing COVID-19 shutdown, the one source most musicians had for a return on their efforts, live shows and tours, just evaporated, and even under the best of circumstances, it’ll be at least next year before tours can get going again, even with an available vaccine. That’s why it’s important to note the steampunk band Abney Park and the band’s efforts toward virtual concerts such as the upcoming Live From The Quarantine Apocalypse #2 streaming show. If nothing else, I for one hope to see a continuation of shows such as this after live tours become a thing again: the Abney Park show I attempted to catch in 2008 was ruined both by the venue (advertising a show start of 8:00 and then finally allowing the band on stage at nearly 1 in the morning) and yet another DJ determined to get attendees to stop trying to talk over his lousy selections by jacking the volume ever higher. Anything that would allow me to enjoy live shows without these and the idiots recording the whole thing on their iPads in the front row is worth paying for.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #16

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on April 14, 2020.

Installment #16: “What I Did On My Cross-Country Trek Across The Cursed Earth”

So…about all those plans for 2020. Funny, huh?

If there’s anything approximating a silver lining to the last month, it’s that we’re all discovering which of us have the ultraviolet senses of humor. I mean, no zombies, no Daleks, no triffids, no rampaging bands of mutants attacking the walls of Mega City One, no Australian motorcycle punks in bondage pants tearing down the highways with stolen guzzoline, no teenage crack shots with telepathic dog companions, and not even a sardonic name for COVID-19. I mean, “Captain Trumps” is close, but it’s probably not going to catch on, more’s the pity. If humor is the psyche’s way to deal with an interrupted defense mechanism, then the smartalecks will be the ones to inherit the Earth…if they can keep it away from singing roaches, re-emerged dinosaur men, and the constant need to roll for beneficial mutations.

After the snark comes the urge to help. The Triffid Ranch is going to be fine (check out below for details), but it’s hard not to worry about friends, cohorts, and interesting bystanders. For those without means or motivation to keep up with Dallas news, the whole of Dallas County is still on shelter-in-place orders until the end of April, and it’s becoming likely that the existing order may be extended. Most school districts have given up on classes returning to finish out the school year, more and more businesses are letting everyone work from home (although plenty are already itching to require their employees to come back; we’re rapidly recognizing the sheer number of managers who want to oversee large groups of organ donors solely because they aren’t allowed to stick their family members with hatpins), and any kind of social interaction is increasingly virtual. Yeah, it’s rough, and it might be rough for a while.

Again, the urge to help. Given a few minutes, we could all think of several people and venues to which we could point and say “Don’t worry about me: go help THEM” and mean it. Let me start the ball rolling. Friends who have never been to Dallas, and whose total knowledge of this city comes from that godawful TV show from 40 years ago, wonder why I stay and why I keep fighting to make this place better. Here are some of the reasons why.

Firstly, it’s time to give a shoutout to a friend and a cohort, one of the biggest smartalecks in Dallas journalism, and someone who also believes that We Can Be Better. I’m talking about Pete Freedman of the Dallas news site Central Track. All of the local news venues are hurting: I’m also giving a shoutout to the Dallas Observer, and I’m even willing to let slide 40 years of bad blood with the Dallas Morning News now that the James Lipton of Fandom moved on. However, Central Track is exactly the sort of gonzo news source that Dallas has needed for decades: it’s smart, it’s concise, and its staff is more interested in punching up than in catering to fevered egos, both outside and inside the newsroom. The reason I bring up Pete and Central Track is because its emphasis was on culture and local events, and when the events all shut down, so did all of Central Track’s advertising. If nothing else, go digging through the archives (the breakdowns on the State Fair of Texas are priceless), subscribe to its newsletter, and let the staff know that they’re appreciated. Me, I’m sending doughnuts.

Secondly, Dallas also suffers from a reputation for corporate dining that’s also 40 years old, even if it’s hard not to take licks for being responsible for the Brinker restaurant empire. We also have a reputation kept inside for some really incredible options from a huge array of ethnic cuisines, especially in the Richardson and Garland areas. With the lockdown, all sit-in dining is banned, so a lot of great places are having to squeak by with pickup and delivery sales. Recommending all of the places worthy of inclusion would take all week, so I give two recommendations for restaurants right next to the gallery that are especially near and dear to our hearts: Sababa for Mediterranean cuisine and Tasty Tails for New Orleans-style seafood. Sababa is literally across the street from the gallery, and Tasty Tails is about a block north (dangerously close to the Richardson Half Price Books), so when things get closer to normal, it may be time to invite everyone over for one big gathering and see why we stay.

And then there’s the stuff to do while sheltering in place. I personally owe Keith Colvin of Keith’s Comics a whole series of debts for kindnesses and considerations over the years, and that has nothing to do with recommending his shop for takeout orders of the best in comics and graphic novels. Likewise, although the flagship Half Price Books location is closed to visitors along with all of the others, they’re also filling pickup orders from requests made online and by phone. And when this is over, I have a very big Nepenthes attenboroughii enclosure waiting for the flagship store, so the sooner it’s all over, the better, eh?
Okay, that’s the help list from over here. Let’s see yours.

Other News

Well, since all of the previous drama has made things awfully entertaining around here, should I mention that it’s bluebonnet season in Texas? Seriously: if you live in the North Texas area, take advantage of the opportunity for exercise outside to go stare at wildflowers for a few hours. If you don’t, then there’s always photos, right?

Recommended Reading

It’s up for the Hugo Award. It’s been all over NPR. Just trust me: go out and snag a copy of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. As always, I’m biased: Amal and I have been friends for years, even though she worries about how and why I know about the prevalence of carnivorous habits among nominally herbivorous animals in the Scottish Highlands, but don’t let that stop you. As always, I feel an enclosure coming on, and it’s a matter of making it do justice to their book.

Music

A benefit of shelter-in-place? It’s getting caught up on music I’d meant to check out but hadn’t the opportunity. In this month’s case, it meant falling down the Calling All Astronauts rabbit hole, and it’s a deep hole. As it turns out, that works really, really well as gallery background music while working on new enclosures. Uncle Zonker says check it out.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #15

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on February 21, 2020.

Installment #15: “What To Do When Jimmy Hoffa Gives You The Final Logs of the Marie Celeste. And Tells You How He Got Them”

So the last couple of months have been a wonderful time at the Triffid Ranch. The last open house was a blowout, the NARBC Arlington reptile show booth was a hit (and yes, I’m signed up for the September show), and the biggest problem right now is constructing new enclosures to replace ones going out the door. With that came an extensive cleaning, both of the gallery and the Web site, with more to come. Among many other things, the Enclosure Gallery section of the site was finally stripped of its endless scrolling option and everything put into separate links, for further perusal at the reader’s convenience. Oh, and we have stories.

A little backstory here. People who knew me in the days before the Triffid Ranch know that I was a professional writer between 1989 and 2002. “Professional writer” as in “actually getting paid for publication,” even though a lot of the muck shoveled out of my typewriter and computer didn’t quite qualify on either category. (Everyone brings up the tropes of “People DIE from exposure” or “pay the writer,” but amazingly nobody brings up the number of articles, stories, essays, and reports commissioned for publication that are then spiked because they inconvenience a friend of the editor’s, thrown back because the editor saw some other bright shiny object and says “this isn’t what I wanted,” kicked down the road and then tossed back because “it’s no longer timely,” or, my favorite, simply neglected because the editor is more worried about getting attention than in doing his/her job. With all of these, does the writer get paid for lost time, lost effort, or lost hair and stomach linings? Oh, it happens…about as often as the Dallas Cowboys come home with a shutout World Series pennant.) With a few relapses, I’ve stayed away from pro writing since then, because the aggravation isn’t worth the strain, and this comes from someone who had to threaten to dox every senior executive at SyFy in order to get payment, one per day until either I received a check or the president was getting phone calls on her personal number about why this freelancer hadn’t gotten his check, because nothing else made a difference to them. Others can do the pro writer tango, and that’s fine.

That said, when the gallery opened in 2015 and the first plant enclosures first went public, a strange thing happened. When the gallery first opened, I relished the sense of mystery, and when people would ask “So what’s the story behind this?”, I assumed they meant a discussion of themes or materials or concepts. No, what they meant, quite literally, was “what is the story?” The first response was “What story do YOU want from this?”, and it wasn’t wiseacre: it was serious. The problem was that viewers and purchasers both didn’t want their story about what they were viewing. To an individual, they wanted my story. In many ways, the enclosures were like museum displays or zoo exhibits: people could stare at them all day, but they wanted context and an explanation of what they were viewing. They didn’t always need one, but they wanted to know that one existed, and that there was more to the enclosures than carnivorous plants with neat backgrounds. 

At the same time as that was going on, it was hard as the enclosure creator not to create “What if?” scenarios, instead of leaving everything to the viewer. Asking a viewer to answer the question “So what story do YOU want?” became an internal comparison between the scenario suggested and the one roiling around in my head. Think about it for a while, and the stories became more and more elaborate: who put this here? Why are the plants here? Are they interacting, or did one come before the other? Most importantly, if an unknown protagonist came across that scene, what were the characters and situations that led to that moment? It’s now up to the viewer: how does this story end, and why?

To help that along, every enclosure debuting at the gallery from here on out has its very own backstory, available at your convenience. Much as with the QR codes on museum or zoo displays offering further information, the nameplate on each enclosure has a QR code, readable by the vast majority of smartphones and tablets, so that it can be pulled up right then, or you can go to the Enclosure Gallery section of the Web site to read at your leisure. Some may be silly, some may be humorous, and some may be really, really dark. With the exception of ones that are obvious tributes to other writers or artists, though, they’ll be as unique as can be managed.

Don’t look at this as a return to writing. To paraphrase the old Mel Brooks movie High Anxiety, “I don’t hate writing! I hate publication!” Look at this as “augmented fiction.”

Other News

It took long enough, but the Triffid Ranch presence on Facebook is now as dead as cathode-ray tube monitors, and it was for a lot of reasons. The biggest and foremost was needing to focus on the gallery, but recent developments with Facebook’s algorithms as to which posts would and would not be shared with Page subscribers, as well as how much getting them boosted was going to cost, made being on that platform intolerable. Instagram and Twitter are both still destinations, but getting off Facebook was a plan for the better part of a year, and the current gallery efforts just expedited that. (And yes, this is a shameless plug for subscribing to this newsletter, early and often.)

Recommended Reading

Because more enclosures have gone out the door this year than in all of 2019 (and it’s mind-boggling when considering that the original gallery at Valley View Center opened up five years ago next August), it’s time to recharge the creative batteries by immersing in other people’s dreams and seeing how they influence mine. With the next newsletter, this section splits off recommendations into fiction and nonfiction, but for now, go out and buy yourself a copy of Medusa Uploaded and its sequel Medusa in the Graveyard, both by Emily Devenport. I refuse to hide my partisanship, as Emily and her husband Ernest Hogan have been friends and cohorts for three decades now, and that’s aggravated by the fact that the two consistently write fiction that plays Whack-a-Mole with my subconscious. By the time I’m finished with Medusa in the Graveyard, I should have some really interesting dreams that need to be turned into carnivorous plant enclosures.

Music

Friends joke and grumble about this being “the worst timeline,” but they’re not entirely wrong. If it weren’t, then blues musician Cricket Taylor would be coming back home to Dallas to sold-out shows, heading back for yet another world tour, and taping the latest opening song to the biggest shows on Netflix. Let’s fix the timeline by making this happen, shall we?

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #14

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on January 24, 2020.

Installment #14: “The Best Intentions”

The question keeps coming up with visitors and clients at the gallery. Even with a decor that continues the argument that Doctor Who and The Red Green Show are really the same television show, one items stands out. It’s led to lots of stares, a few quiet questions (where the individual looks up with a quizzical expression but doesn’t actually get anything out), and a few misunderstandings. It’s all involving the same thing, though: “Why is there a poster for the movie Annihilation in your gallery?” 

As I said, it’s a regular question, where those asking it assume that there’s a big artistic explanation, or at least a smirk of “Well, I really liked the movie.” Most Triffid Ranch stories have to go the roundabout way in order to tell the story right, and this one takes a little while. The short version: the 2017 movie Annihilation is based, rather loosely, on the novel by author Jeff VanderMeer, from the first volume in his Southern Reach trilogy. You might recognize the name: Annihilation is the first adaptation of one of his novels so far, but his latest novel Dead Astronauts flooded the book review ecosystem when it came out in December 2019, and that was just a side story on one chapter of his 2017 novel Borne. Those of us who remember the 1990s may remember Jeff as far back as his first novel Dradin, In Love, from his extensive short fiction and nonfiction output over the last 30 years, or from the various fiction collections he and his wife Anne have edited over the last 15 years. Most importantly for this discussion, Jeff VanderMeer is to blame, partly at least, for my getting into carnivorous plants.

Okay, since the short version is inadequate to the task of explaining what’s going on, here’s the long version. Jeff VanderMeer is to blame, partly at least, for my getting into carnivorous plants. Happy?

Okay, backstory. I first encountered the literary dervish that is Jeff VanderMeer about 25 years ago. Due to being laid up after extensive shoulder surgery in 1994, I decided that I could spend my time zoned out on painkillers while watching afternoon television (and in those days, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was the most challenging option out there) or I could take advantage of the opportunity. The next four months alternated between extensive therapy to give a modicum of normal range of motion to my right arm, writing, and learning Web design. With those last two, this was that magical period just before the Internet went really mainstream, in what is generally referred to as the Golden Age of glossy full-color magazines. Lots of magazines meant a need for content that required lots of writers, so I spent the second half of the 1990s polluting the tables of contents for a slew of science fiction and gonzo magazines you’ve probably never heard of. The subsequent collapse of those magazines at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century was mitigated by getting a new career in first Web design and later technical writing, for a slew of companies and online publications you’ve probably never heard of. (If you have, the odds are pretty good that they either still owe you money or they owed someone you know money when they shut down everything and moved out in the middle of the night.) At the beginning of 1995, I had a column for a magazine you’ve probably never heard of, where I was having grand fun beating on some of the more established and pompous gatekeepers in the science fiction community: I wasn’t making any money, but I was infuriating the right people. That’s when I started a regular correspondence with a certain somebody from Tallahassee, Florida. 

To say that this was an easy friendship would be a blatant lie. Both Jeff and I were opinionated, fervent, enthusiastic, and more than a little hyperactive: the difference between us lay with his having talent. I nonetheless attempted to keep up, but kept forgetting that what I thought was idle frippery could be intensely annoying to others. At one point, Jeff blew up on a throwaway piece I wrote for an email newsletter you’ve probably never heard of, and told me “Why don’t you start writing about gardening?” Others would have escalated the conflict, or at least told him exactly what impossible sexual act he could attempt, with accompanying photographs, diagrams, and helpful videos. I thought about it, made a few “Hmmmmm” noises, and did just that. Hang onto this, because this is important.

All of this was fun and games until the beginning of 2002. That was a particularly bad year all the way around, especially for someone with a severe writing habit that was subsidized with 60-hour weeks indulging in technical writing forays. The dotcom crash went into its third year, and a lot of endeavors subsidized with techie money turned back into pumpkins and mice. The non-technical writing career ended in May 2002, after arguing with yet another wannabe editor of yet another stillborn culture magazine about how “exposure doesn’t pay the bills, especially from a magazine that most likely will come out when the Dallas Cowboys win a shutout World Series pennant.” Sometimes, you can be TOO right: after seeing a pattern of publications promising to pay “when we’re successful” and then making damn sure that they never became successful enough to pay their contributors, I shut down everything and walked away. 18 years later, and I still don’t regret that decision.

Here’s where Jeff came back again. Four months later, I received a phone call from a company in Tallahassee, Florida that needed a technical writer. That sort of thing happened a lot, mostly with technical recruiters pretending that they were working by wasting their victims’ time with jobs that didn’t really exist, but these folks were serious. Even better, they were willing to pay for a face-to-face interview. Three days later, I was on a Delta flight, with a seatmate stopping in Tallahassee on his way to Miami, telling me “Don’t waste your time in the Panhandle: the real action is in the South.” I wasn’t going to give him any grief: Florida was one of the few states in the Estados Unidos that I’d never so much as flown over, and everything I knew about the Florida Panhandle came from Golden Nature Guides from the 1960s. I wasn’t expecting alligators on everyone’s front porch, but I at least expected to see tree frogs.

The punchline: after the first phone call, since I knew absolutely nothing about Tallahassee, I emailed the one person I knew who did: a guy who was still trying to convince me to return to writing. Jeff had lived most of his life in Tallahassee, and he told me to go for it. 

Fast-forward two weeks: not only did I get the job, but they were even willing to pay for me to move there, so that meant loading up my old Dodge Neon with everything I thought I’d need for the next few months, leaving my frantic fiancé in Dallas, and making a straight drive along Interstate Highway I-10 to Tally. After getting set up in a residence hotel just off the highway and visiting my new workplace, it was time to explore the new environs, and I found myself on a Friday afternoon in the Tallahassee Museum. The Museum is less a formal museum than a wildlife preserve and recreation of the general environment facing early European settlers in the area, which meant lots of forest, lots of bog, lots of animals ranging from Florida panthers to indigo snakes, and the widest range of flora I’d ever seen. And there, up in the front by the main visitor center, was a planter full of Sarracenia purpurea, more commonly known as the purple pitcher plant. And that, as they say, was that. Discovering later that the boglands around and in Appalachicola National Forest have the widest variety by genera of carnivorous plants of any area on the planet was just gravy.

Well, time elapsed. The company that hired me was climbing out of bankruptcy after the dotcom crash, and three months after moving out there, I discovered that the big software package I was hired to document wasn’t going to happen and that my services were no longer needed, This was about three days before Christmas and six days before my fiancé and I were to be married, and literally an hour after purchasing non-refundable plane tickets to get back to Dallas for that wedding, which meant having to fly to Dallas for holidays and wedding, flying back to Tallahassee on New Year’s Day, cleaning out my rented room and saying goodbye to my roommate, and driving back to Dallas. (A little tip: don’t try that as a straight trip if you feel the need: the first 11 hours aren’t that bad, but the last four are where sleep deprivation starts to kick in. I’m just glad I didn’t encounter any significant road construction.) One of the last things I did before leaving Tallahassee, though, was visiting the Tallahassee Museum one last time and ransacking the gift shop’s selection of carnivorous plant books.

17 years later, those books are part of the library at the gallery. The fascination with carnivores never let up, ultimately leading to giving lectures on carnivores, then selling them at shows and conventions, and ultimately to the gallery. And behind this all was the cherished friendship of Jeff VanderMeer, who never gave me any grief in Tallahassee about needing time to recuperate and heal. In return, I do nothing but cheer over news about new books and upcoming television deals. A hardcover copy of Dead Astronauts sits on display in the gallery as I write this, and the Annihilation poster will only get replaced in its current place of honor when the next movie adaptation comes out.  That said, it’s still so much fun to send him pictures of the crowd at a gallery open house, wag my finger, and yell “Dude, this is YOUR FAULT!”

And if you think this was an odd story, just wait until I tell you about Ernest Hogan. Ernest REALLY has a lot to live down after having to deal with me for the last 30 years.

Other News

​It took long enough, but the Triffid Ranch presence on Facebook is now as dead as cathode-ray tube monitors, and it was for a lot of reasons. The biggest and foremost was needing to focus on the gallery, but recent developments with Facebook’s algorithms as to which posts would and would not be shared with Page subscribers, as well as how much getting them boosted was going to cost, made being on that platform intolerable. Instagram and Twitter are both still destinations, but getting off Facebook was a plan for the better part of a year, and the current gallery efforts just expedited that. (And yes, this is a shameless plug for subscribing to this newsletter, early and often.)

Recommended Reading

You may have missed it during its original release, but a lot of Triffid Ranch inspiration these days comes from a rereading of Raven Rock by Garrett M. Graffiti, a look at efforts after World War II to build and rebuild facilities for government officials to survive a major nuclear attack. Examining facilities never used but still technically active is a long-running fascination, and you don’t get stranger than a lot of military and government plans that were sidelined as peace broke out.

Music

Finally, a combination of long hours and seeking new vistas at the gallery means needing a lot of new music, and the current work background music comes from the German electronic band Blutangel. When you need music for future archaeology, you can’t go wrong with this crew.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – 13

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on December 18, 2019

Installment #13 “Ain’t No Cure For the Wintertime Blues, Part 2’

When last we saw our intrepid newsletter, we were discussing essential operations to keep one hale and hearty through the depths of winter. We now return to our diatribe, already in progress.

One of the great bits of fun about being in the carnivorous plant trade is that we’re always in the never-ending September. If you’re not familiar with the term, it comes from computer network sysadmins, most of whom had their first experiences on university networks and had to train a whole new audience on such basics as printing manuscripts, saving files, and turning it off and turning it back on again. 25 years ago, this hit everyone when the Internet became a diversion, a tool, and a secret addiction, and that first month of handholding turned into an all-year gig, with more people coming in as blank slates than were leaving as fully certified and experienced users. The difference is that those sysadmins looked at this as a chore. We carnivore people look at this as an opportunity, especially when that newbie we met a decade ago now surpasses our knowledge and has knowledge to return.

So many of us in the carnivore trade have tales of those mentors who helped us without expectation of return when we were first starting out. In my case, I owe debts to Peter D’Amato of California Carnivores, Jacob Farin and Jeff Dallas of Sarracenia Northwest, and Michael Wallitis of Black Jungle Terrarium Supply that I couldn’t repay in a billion years, Because of those kindnesses, it’s imperative to return the favor. Since the biggest issue after the holiday season is finding things to do to stay active when the worst of winter weather keeps you trapped inside, it’s time to share some trade secrets, pass on some abstract knowledge, and answer one overriding question asked about Triffid Ranch enclosures over and over: “just where the hell did you come up with that?” In no particular order, here are a few of my favorite sources for everything that goes with the plants:

American Science & Surplus: I have friends who live within the vicinity of American Science & Surplus outlets, full of everything from low-cost lab glassware to screaming monkey puppets, who tell me all about the fun they have loading up shopping carts full of interesting overstocks, rejects, consignments, and castoffs. I spend most nights plotting terrible revenge on them, usually involving my talking them to death. Seriously, both the print catalog and the Web site are packed with thoughtful, accurate, and very funny descriptions of the latest flotsam to come across their loading docks, and I regularly go to AS&S for everything from sculpting tools to pipe cutters to soldering stations, and a lot of details in Triffid Ranch backdrops started as something completely different spotted in the latest catalog. The only regret: AS&S can’t ship overseas, and 15 years of searching for an international resource of this scale has always led to failure. As soon as they start shipping internationally, though, you’ll know. The whole planet will know. 

Micro-Mark: It may seem odd to recommend a model kit enthusiast tool source to gardeners, but Micro-Mark is different. Very different. About half of my tools for miniature bottle gardening came from the Micro-Mark catalog or were constructed using Micro-Mark tools, and the company’s heavy-duty hot foam knife (sadly discontinued) is an essential tool used at least once per week. In addition to loads and loads of adhesives, stock styrene, sculpting and scoring tools, and more small-scale power tools than you could shake a lathe at, Micro-Mark also gets odd one-offs that you didn’t realize you needed until you needed, say, tiny heat sinks that double as tiny clamps for holding small vines in place while the glue dries. And for those of us starting to familiarize ourselves with airbrushes, the Micro-Mark catalog is dangerous.

Smooth-On: I’d recommend Smooth-On just for its exemplary moldmaking and casting components, but nowhere near enough people in horticulture and garden design, as well as those working with reptiles, amphibians, and fish, know about Smooth-On’s Habitat line of aquarium-safe freeform epoxy putty and brushable and pourable resin. Over the last three years, I’ve gone through a truly remarkable amount of the Habitat epoxy putty as an adhesive and smoothing medium, and can’t recommend it highly enough for both its versatility and its resistance to both moisture and acid soils. And the look on amphibian-addicted friends’ faces when they discover aquatic amphibian-safe aquarium media options…

Obviously, this is just a start: too many options can be dangerous. However, there’s nothing that says that further collections of dangerous visions won’t be available in the future. Keep watching the skies.

Other News
For as long as I’ve been alive, the final year of a given decade was one of transitions, usually exceedingly painful. 2019 was my very own Angry Candy year, with a lot of friends dying, including my father-in-law, and all sorts of tribulations at the end. That’s why we’re having a big open house on January 25 for Chinese New Year: one celebration to the end of a kidney stone of a year just isn’t enough.

Recommended Reading

Far be it for me to add another review of Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Dead Astronauts to the pile, but here’s another reason to pick up a copy, help turn it into a bestseller, and facilitate the upcoming television project based both on it and its predecessor Borne. Jeff and I have been friends since my writing days in the early Nineties, and if not for his inadvertent advice to move to Tallahassee for a job in 2002 and my first encounter with Sarracenia pitcher plants on my first day there, my life would have been drastically different. Because of that, after Dead Astronauts melts your brain and causes it to dribble out your nose at the most inopportune time, you can come up to him at a signing or a Nobel Prize acceptance ceremony, throw a Triffid Ranch T-shirt at him, and yell “This is YOUR fault!” And the best part? It is.

Music

It’s been a rough few months for everyone, so I leave you with an introduction, if you’re not familiar already, with Angel Metro. Just trust me on this. Go download the latest album by whatever service you prefer, but give it a good stout listen before the next newsletter comes out.

On 2019

The end of any year in the Gregorian calendar that ends in a “9” always ends the same: innumerable alcoholic amateurs assuming that they’re channeling the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson, massive disappointing clearance sales with clothing stores acknowledging that styles WILL change and soon, and the continuing war between pedants on whether a particular decade ends at the end of the “9” year or the end of the “0” year. Personally, since 1970, which just never rolled over and went away until about 1987, my attitude has been that those “0” years are transition years: the decade that was dies tonight at midnight, but the beast won’t die until the signal travels all the way through its bulk and reaches its tail, and it’ll thrash around for a while in the process. We now have a year to find out what the Twenty-Twenties are going to look and sound like, and we shouldn’t worry about the exact date of death. What matters right now is that as of midnight on January 1, the Twenty-First Century is now one-fifth over, and we should start behaving like it. Want a semantic cause? Start insisting that those still using the term “turn of the century” need to emphasize which one.

There’s no question that 2019 was a year of transition, of what the author Harlan Ellison referred to as “the hour that stretches.” Harlan’s 1988 collection Angry Candy started with an introduction discussing all of the friends, cohorts, heroes, and fellow travelers he’d lost by that point, and how the sudden conga line of mortality directly affected his storytelling. At the time I bought that collection when it came out in hardcover, I was nearly 22, so I had no real grasp of his pain: now, I’m the age he was when Angry Candy was published, and I understand far too well. You may not recognize the names of Jeb Bartlett or Rob Fontenot or Laura Huebner, or of my father-in-law Durwood Crawford, but they made the world just a little more fun and a little more kind, and they’ll always have a spot in the Triffid Ranch pantheon of heroes alongside Adrian Slack and old Harlan himself. (And I have to leave a little room for my late cat Leiber, as his life stretched across nearly a third of mine, and not hearing his happy chirps when I’d look at all of the cat fur in the vacuum cleaner and scream “WHY IS THIS CAT NOT BALD?” has left the house just a little darker and lonelier, no matter how much Alexandria and Simon try to fill the gap.)

As far as accomplishments are concerned, this was a good year because of their sheer number. This was the first year a Triffid Ranch enclosure was entered in a professional art exhibition, and the first year of making more than one trip outside of Dallas to show off enclosures. (Next year will be even more fun, with at least three shows in Austin, one in Houston, and the first-ever show outside of Texas in New Orleans in August.) This was a year for workshops, and a year for presentations, and a year for rapidly changing directions. This was the year, a decade after the first halting Triffid Ranch shows, where I never regretted quitting professional writing less, because those workshops and presentations did more actual good than writing about long-forgotten movies and books ever did. Expect a lot more of those in 2020, too, because the life of a carnivorous plant grower is always intense.

With that year in transition comes a few unpleasant but necessary sidebars. 2020 is going to be a year without Facebook: after a lot of thought about Facebook’s accessibility for friends and customers versus the company’s issues with security, its never-ending throttling of Page access to subscribers unless the Page owner pays for “boosts” (and the ever-decreasing reach of those boosts thanks to ad blockers and the company’s own algorithms), it’s time to leave early so as to avoid the rush. Social media access continues with both Instagram and Twitter (just search for “txtriffidranch”), but the rabbit hole opened every time someone sent a message that lowered Triffid Ranch Page posts if I didn’t respond immediately to yet another discovery of that idiotic Santa Claus Venus flytrap video just takes up too much time. Besides, if you’re wanting news on what’s happening with the gallery, that’s what the newsletter is for.

Anyway, thank you all for sticking around, for coming up and asking questions at presentations and lectures, for buying enclosures so I have room to place new ones, and for coming out to open houses. You’re appreciated, and just wait until you see what’s planned for 2020. The first open house of the year is on January 25: you won’t want to miss this one.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – 12

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on November 9, 2019.

Installment #12: “Ain’t No Cure For the Wintertime Blues, Part 1”

No matter how hard we worked to keep it from happening, it’s over. No matter how hard we fought, winter is on the way to the Northern Hemisphere, and with it the dreaded holiday season. It’s worse than the flu. It’s worse than dry and overcooked turkey. It’s worse than working retail for a sadistic corporation that gets off on forcing its peons to have to listen to “Santa Baby” over and over for eight to ten hours a day. Even for those blessedly spared butter cookies and animatronic reindeer and Dawn of the Dead cosplay at the local Walmart, who avoid cable just so they don’t have to hear about the latest Hallmark Channel holiday movie, there’s one thing we can’t avoid on this half of the planet, and that’s the end of the growing season. That’s it. There’s nothing to be done other than wait four to six months for the days to get longer.

I admit that I don’t mind the concept of winter, in moderation. For the last 40 years, Texas made this so much better, and surviving the blistering summers was always so much more tolerable with the promise of winter out here. Four decades ago this month, my family made the trek from the south side of Chicago to the northern suburbs of Dallas right after Thanksgiving, and the disconnect was stunning. The end of 1979 in Chicago wasn’t promising meters of snowfall the way the year had started, but the last of the household goods went into the moving truck just as a patchy snow started as the temperature dropped below freezing, and it wasn’t the good kind of snow that could be used for snowballs and snowmen, either. This was God’s dandruff, that filled hollows in the ground and not much else, and it signaled nothing other than “it only gets worse from here.” For nearly the length of Illinois, the snow followed, with overcast skies preventing it from melting or even ablating away. You can imagine how a kid raised disturbingly close to the 45th Parallel felt about getting to Dallas about three days later and stepping out of a car on a December day without needing to put on two coats and a hat. Comparatively, the grass was still green, and nights only got chilly enough to warrant a jacket, not a full parka and boots. December in Texas? Heck, this was the end of August in northern Michigan, and when snow finally arrived about a month later, it melted off within a day. It was GLORIOUS.

(This isn’t to say that Dallas doesn’t get cold, too. December 1983 brought a week-long cold wave so bad that the Gulf of Mexico around Galveston froze for the first time in recorded history and probably the first time since the last great glacial advance, and marine biologists still pore through the breakdowns of the species and numbers of fish killed that collected in huge piles once the ice melted. A week-long freeze and ice storm in 1985 helped local authorities discover that Texas didn’t have a law against driving snowmobiles on state highways because nobody thought it was necessary. Oh, and then there’s the lowest temperature ever recorded in Dallas, all of one degree F on Christmas Eve 1989, that I remember because of the sheer thrill of moving a movie poster-sized sheet of glass down an ice-covered hill on foot, all to make sure that my then-girlfriend had her birthday present that day…and then watching that sheet crack from thermal stress when I got it inside. It’s just that this doesn’t happen often, at least compared to six months of carving lawn furniture out of blocks of frozen nitrogen in Wisconsin.)

For those of us needing green, it’s rough this time of the year. The outdoor plants are dead, dying, or pining for the fijords, and any Venus flytraps and Sarracenia pitcher plants are either in dormancy or heading toward a long winter sleep. Indoors, the plants with access to sunlight are still slowing down and prepping for the long dark. (If your plants are kept purely under artificial lights, cutting back on their photoperiods over the winter and then lengthening the number of hours they get by about mid-March won’t guarantee an enthusiastic blooming period, but it can’t hurt.) The good news is that you don’t have to stop working with plants: you just have to pivot. Some of the many things you can do now while your plants are resting: Clean your tools and pots.

Remember last summer, when you were fighting off giant tomato hornworms and swearing that you were going to clean off caterpillar ichor from your prize Felco pruners when summer was done? Now’s the time to get out all of your tools used throughout the year, along with an old towel, and set them all out on the towel. You’re going to need distractions, so don’t be afraid to pull out headphones or put something on the television that you can binge while you’re scraping caterpillar guts. (For most gardening people with Netflix, I highly recommend The Great British Baking Show; for us carnivore people, I recommend Daybreak or Lucifer.) Besides a dishtub full of warm soapy water, you should also have:

A bottle of isopropyl alcohol.
A bottle of window cleaner.
A bottle of Goo-Gone or a comparable brand of sticker and label remover (as if such a thing exists).
A bottle of hand lotion.
Spare rags AND paper towels.
At least one old toothbrush.
A bottle of light machine oil and a bottle of WD-40.
Disposable gloves of your preference. (Try to go for nitrile over latex, for reasons that will soon become obvious.)
Optional: A whetstone or sharpening stone, preferably with a fine abrasive surface.

Some of the items on the list have purposes that aren’t immediately obvious, so let’s go through them. The isopropyl alcohol and Goo-Gone are for labels, stickers, and other stick-ons that are peeling free, cracking, or otherwise getting in the way. (The isopropyl alcohol is specifically for labels that use adhesive resistant to water or ethyl alcohol This is also something handy to remember when cleaning liquor or wine bottles, by the way, because the label paper may come free with soaking in water but the adhesive won’t.) The bottle of window cleaner is for the occasional glue or glop that needs ammonia for removal. The gloves are because you really don’t want your hands soaking in isopropyl alcohol or window cleaner for long periods without some kind of protection, and the hand lotion is an additional level of protection inside the gloves. (It also makes your hands smell nice, which they definitely won’t if you’ve been bathing in Goo-Gone for an entire binge watch of Daybreak.) The reason why you want nitrile gloves instead of latex ones is that latex tends to be attacked by the light machine oil you’re going to use, and they tend to be more tolerant of the other chemicals you’re using. Finally, the light machine oil and the WD-40 are for lubrication: WD-40 is a penetrating solvent that’s incredibly good at loosening up seized or rusted metal parts, but it’s not an actual lubricant, so its use has to be followed up with light oil.

Two clarifications: the reason why the above list includes “spare rags AND paper towels” is that you’re going to come across substances, particularly label adhesives and oil, that you’re not going to want on rags that you plan to reuse or, worse, wash in your home washing machine. (If you’re the sort of monster who goes to a laundromat to wash items like this so you don’t mess up your own machine, several concert T-shirts, several dress shirts, and I are coming over to have a really long talk with your kneecaps.) Paper towels may be overused, but between washer and dryer abuse and the potential for spontaneous combustion, they’re a great way to collect glop that needs to leave the premises right then and there. However, there are cleaning and scrubbing activities that paper towels can’t handle without shredding and disintegrating, so take into account your needs.

And the sharpening stone? I know it’s hard to believe, but a disturbing number of people assume that the current sharpness of secateurs, scissors, grafting knives, hedge clippers, and lawn mower blades is what it is, with no option for improving the situation. Codswallop. Just as a cut from a sharp knife heals faster than one from a dull knife, cutting living plant material of all sorts heals faster with a sharp blade because the blade doesn’t crush or mangle the tissue at the cut. Unless you’ve really let your blades slide or you’re cutting up metal with your Felco pruners, a sharpening stone with a fine grit should handle all of your needs: I personally use an Arkansas whetstone that I purchased in the late 1980s, and still puts a precision edge on everything from scalpels to putty knives.

Okay, now that you have plenty to do, get to cleaning. You’ll need all of this ready to go by the time you get the next installment, available soon.

Other News
In other developments, the promise of stirring up the Triffid Ranch social media environment starts at the end of the year, with the shutdown of both personal Facebook account and the Triffid Ranch Facebook page. This wasn’t an easy decision, but recent changes in Facebook’s algorithm have made it impossible for people to get Page postings unless they’re boosted, and that is becoming increasingly more expensive with less of a return. If you know someone trying to keep up via Facebook who hasn’t read anything in a while, that’s why: the Twitter and Instagram accounts (both “txtriffidranch”) are staying up, but the first act of January 2020 is to shut down the Facebook account for good. (And feel free to forward this newsletter to anybody who might have an interest, because retro media is the new future. At this rate, it may be time to turn this newsletter into a zine.)

Recommended Reading

One of these days, the To Be Read pile beside my bed is going to collapse and kill me in my sleep, but that’s only because of so many choices. However, two particulars stand out: the latest Spectrum Awards collection of fantastic art (because after a quarter-century, it just keeps getting better and better), and the new book The Making of Alien, which goes into detail on the making of the classic film, including a lot of the conflicts and command decisions that almost imploded the production over and over. Both are available in oversized hardcovers, so if you don’t feel like Netflix binging, these are great distractions while cleaning your gardening tools.

Music

It’s been a rough few months for everyone, so I leave you with an introduction, if you’re not familiar already, with Angel Metro. Just trust me on this. Go download the latest album by whatever service you prefer, but give it a good stout listen before the next newsletter comes out.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – 11

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on July 19, 2019.
 
Installment #11: “If You Go To Mos Eisley, You Will Die.”
 
My wife Caroline, the talent behind Caroline Crawford Originals, has it rough these these days. Well, she has it rough anyway. It’s bad enough when total strangers tell her “You’re an absolute saint for not throwing your husband feet-first into a tree mulcher” or “Does he talk that much ALL of the time?”, but when ex-girlfriends get together with her to commiserate on their temporary and her semi-permanent lapses in taste and sanity, she starts questioning, yet again, whether saying “I do” at the end of 2002 was such a great idea. And then there’s the constant reminders that she could just let me do what I’m planning to do, as she’s going to inherit my literary estate anyway, and what she does with the $1.49 she gets by selling off reprint rights is her business. “Hold my beer and watch THIS” is never uttered in the house or at the gallery because I can’t drink, but the concept can be found in a lot of discussions, usually involving reptile shows and road trips. As witnessed by plenty, it’s not a fancy dinner gathering without her stopping with fork halfway to lips, looking at me, and yelling “What the HELL is WRONG with you?”
 
Sometimes, though, I scare her. Such an event happened the weekend before last, when we were both having a lazy morning of going through email and catching up with friends online. For the sake of this discussion, picture this as the opening to a new Netflix limited sitcom, in an alternate reality where Mira Furlan would have shared top billing with the late Rik Mayall:
 
“Oh, THAT’s interesting.”
 
(Cut to Mira, who raises an eyebrow slightly but says nothing.”
 
(Rik puts down his phone for a moment.) “Just to let you know in advance, I’m leaving later this year to be with another woman.”
 
(Mira raises the eyebrow a bit higher, but still says nothing.)
 
“For the record, she’s married, too.”
 
(No perceptible movement. She’s heard this routine before.)
 
“We’re going to be gone for a week.”
 
“Oh. Thank you for letting me know that, dear.”
 
“And we’re going to Disneyland.”
 
(No immediately perceptible movement, but the glass screen of Mira’s phone starts to shimmer and sparkle in demonstration of the piezoelectric effect, as it is compressed, very slowly, into neutronium.)
 
“Oh, isn’t that nice. Are you going for Halloween?”
 
“Possibly. And I’m going to be too busy to call or write, too.”
 
(Mira’s eyebrow is now buried in the ceiling. The FX crew is going to be busy with either prosthetic elbows or CGI, but her elbows start sprouting long sharp bony spurs that drip a noxious gren venom onto the floor, burning holes in the carpet.)
 
“And WHAT do you have planned out there?”
 
“We’re going to see the new Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge park.”
 
(Mira says nothing: she just pulls out the big paracord net she keeps behind the chair, flings it over Rik before he recognize the threat, pulls out an autoinjector, and pumps 150ccs of specially formulated elephant tranquilizers into Rik’s carotid artery before he can escape. She stands over him, contemplating how the next few minutes will go and whether she’ll need an attorney or a wood chipper.)
 
“I beg your pardon?”
 
“We’re going to Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. For WORK.” (This sentence is in subtitles due to the elephant tranquilizers, as not everyone in the audience is fluent in Vowel Movement.)
 
“And to do WHAT, exactly?”
 
“To check out plants.” (Rik is now turning bright blue, and he’s drooling much more than normally.)
 
(Mira goes offstage for a moment, returning with a ball peen hammer and her favorite baseball bat. “I’m only going to ask this once: what have you done with my husband? And PLEASE be difficult: you look so much like him that this is going to be fun. I still haven’t forgiven him for the ‘How Does Brundlefly Eat?” science fair project.”
 
“No, really. I swear.” (This comes out with a gurgle and belch at the same time.)
 
“Really. Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge? Do you really think I’m THAT stupid? Why didn’t you just tell me he was going out to get drunk?”
 
(Rik expires, signified by a four-minute fart that shakes the camera.)
 
In retrospect, I could understand Caroline’s trepidation. All through my writing days and predating them, ragging on Star Wars and its fanatics was a daily constant up there with cellular respiration and telomere degeneration. After years of arguing that while George Lucas had the better special effects budget, Ed Wood was the superior writer and director, the only reasonable response was the big net. The guy responsible for suggesting the Jar Jar Binks urinal cake saying that he wanted to visit an amusement park space solely dedicated to a cinematic franchise he mocked for decades, and without once asking about a “Cantina Barmaid Bea Arthur” action figure in the gift shop? What kind of madness is this?
 
(Slight digression for the sake of longtime acquaintances: the second greatest decision I ever made after quitting pro writing in 2002, after taking the job offer in Tallahassee that sent me on this odd path, was getting on the other side of the vendor table at science fiction events. Well, that and the fact that The Last Jedi and Rogue One were a lot better than I was originally willing to give them credit for being. If asked at the Day Job “Star Trek or Star Wars?”, I’m still going to answer “Don’t look at me: I’m a Babylon 5 kind of guy,” but that’s why I’m neck-deep in carnivores instead of roses or orchids,too.)
 
Well, some of the mystery faded for Caroline when I told her about the person I was leaving her for: Amanda Thomsen, the famed author of Kiss My Aster and for all intents and purposes my little sister, just came back from a tour of the landscaping department at Disneyland, and that started a very serious discussion. Amanda wasn’t just impressed by the efforts spent every day to keep up bedding and highlight plants in an amusement park with literally thousands of people per day tromping, stomping, flopping, and jumping all over the spaces between the “PLEASE KEEP OFF THE FLOWERS” signs. She was even more impressed by how effortless they make it look, too.
 
Now the reason why your humble narrator’s ears perked? The whole of Disneyland runs with a coordinated and orchestrated landscaping regime that changes for events and through the seasons. (And yes, there actually IS another season in Central Florida other than “Inhaling A Pot of Boiling Corn Syrup.” It just lasts for about maybe four hours in early January, which is why nobody in Orlando sleeps that month for fear of missing it.) That part is well-documented. However, Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is a completely different challenge, and I wanted to see how the landscaping team worked with the challenge of selecting and arranging plants that didn’t bring visitors out of the illusion.
 
By way of example, science fiction in all of its forms was never really about predicting the future than it was about interpreting the present using extrapolations of the future as a lens. The problem is with trying to get the audience to accept those extrapolations and not get pulled out of the story. The late Harlan Ellison once related that one of his great epiphanies about futuristic settings was when he read a story as a teenager with the sentence “The door irised open.” Think about that for a second: “The door irised” open not only immediately signifies that this isn’t a typical contemporary setting, but it also leads to the question “So WHY does the door need to iris open?” That leads to all sorts of conjecture as to the whys and wherefores of the world into which the writer just booted us, and the fervent hope is that the writer gives us as good an explanation as what we already had running through our heads with that first sentence. Science fiction is generally described as a literature of “What If,” but the question that always follows “What if?” is “Why?”, and anyone creating any kind of science fiction had better be able to answer that.
 
Sometimes the process of prognostication goes a little off. Novels and short stories may be able to describe wide vistas never before seen, but the impact is still dependent upon the reader’s imagination. Visual arts can bypass that for a literal cost in actors, sets, costumes, and special effects, with a constant battle between vision and budget. Trying to go for that sense of wonder is compounded in an amusement park: camera angles can keep a movie audience from viewing the cables in an animatronic puppet, and that doesn’t work in the slightest with thousands of people poking, prodding, and peeking around it, seven days a week. Creating displays for public areas is a whole discipline with formal college degrees these days, and the compromise between making something heart-stopping and making something safe is very real.
 
The final aspect to consider are the aspects, almost always accidental, that pull audiences out of the illusion, and science fiction movies and television have a LOT of those. This isn’t just talking about reworking and repainting toys or appliances to turn them into props: you have the accidental anachronisms such as the assumption in 2001: A Space Odyssey that Pan Am would be still be an active airline, much less running orbital shuttles by the beginning of the new century, or the series Babylon 5 suggesting, even tongue in cheek, that Zima would be the drink of choice in 2258. The further back you go, the more obvious the set and FX redressings and repurposings: the original Star Trek was famed for using outrageously tacky furniture and wall accessories, under the idea that tacky was just the future ahead of its time, and bubble wrap was so new and exotic in England in the 1960s that Doctor Who characters wore quite a bit of it. The same applies with plants, with helleconias, dracaenias, ficuses, and the occasional jade plant filling in for exotic alien flora, or a gigantic collection of exotic orchids really consisting of about twenty Phalaenopsis orchid shot at different angles. If it’s recognizable or ridiculous, it pulls you out right then, and those of us in botany and horticulture are just a little less vocal about this than others.
 
Now, Disney amusement park design is anything other than haphazard, and one of the more intriguing aspects about Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge involves how hard the Disney crew worked to keep up the illusion that visitors aren’t in a park. For instance, all of the workers (referred to as “cast” in Disney parlance) have unique costumes and backstories, which they’re prepared to recite if questioned by patrons. That’s already applied across Disney parks with the company’s classic characters (think about the Disney princesses, for instance), but just think of the complexity of creating dozens or hundreds of unique personae, with unique clothes and tools and accessories, simulating all of the background characters seen for a moment or two in the Star Wars films, but able to step out and answer questions in character. Disney earned its reputation for that sort of character immersion, but this is pushing those previous efforts to a whole new level.
 
And that’s why I want to head out there with Amanda and take copious notes. From what pictures have come out from Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, the landscaping design gives a suitably alien aspect to the attractions, but I want to get closer. I want to see what kind of plants and in what combinations and arrangements. I want to see if the trees are real trees or cunningly constructed simulations, and what species and cultivars if the former. I want to know how the arrangements are rotated based on the season and the compromises between “sufficiently alien for Star Wars” and “suited for Orlando’s climate.” Most importantly, I want to have a heads-up, because garden centers and nurseries are going to start getting calls asking “I saw this really cool plant at Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, and can you get one for me?” and I want to answer “Oh, you BETCHA!” And then, after the Disney purchase of the entirety of the Twentieth Century Fox archive, I’ll be rooting for Disneyland to give the same treatment to Alien.

Other News

Oh, news is a bit, erm, intense this month. The Triffid Ranch finally got on the Atlas Obscura map this month, and that led to a wonderful conversation with Samantha Lopez at the Houston Chronicle that just came out on both the Chronicle and the MySanAntonio sites. This coincided with deciding to return the favor and sponsoring the Class of ’79 podcast from Fangoria magazine. The last is a particular payback, and not just because so many of the horror film releases of 1979 were so influential to me when I was finally old enough to hit the Dallas midnight movie circuit in the mid-Eighties: Fangoria‘s new owners have done more than enough justice to their promise to revive the magazine, and in my home town, too. This will be the first of many such sponsorships, for as long as I can manage, and they’re welcome to do a podcast hosted at the gallery, too.

Recommended Reading

Between longer days and lots of projects (including a series of commissions that are another reason why you won’t see another Triffid Ranch open house until the end of August), the To Be Read pile beside the bed has gone from “impressive” to “worrisome” to “a direct threat to the cats if it collapses.” (Not that either would notice: Alexandria would surf the flow, and Simon is now getting so big that the pile has to threaten to block the sun before he becomes concerned.) Among the textbooks on museum display design and airbrush techniques, though, it behooves thee to snag a copy of Jason Heller‘s Strange Stars, a thorough guide to the ongoing cross-pollination between science fiction and rock music through the 1970s, now that it’s out in paperback. (There’s a connection between this and the airbrush guides, too, considering the number of famed album cover artists who crossed back and forth between album covers and science fiction and fantasy novels, sometimes specifically because a musician saw a particular book cover and said “We NEED this look.”)

Music

And speaking of the intersection of science fiction and music, fans of esoteric music might recognize the name “Steven Archer” as part of the cultural colony organism known as Ego Likeness, and a few of you might even recognize him for his sideproject Hopeful Machines. Well, for a few years now, he’s been working as well on new albums for Stoneburner, a project inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. The latest Stoneburner album, Technology Implies Belligerence, just hit the streaming service feeds, and coming from a decade-long Archer fan, it’s his best yet. Go give it a listen, and then understand why it’ll be essential listening in the gallery when working on new enclosures.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale -10

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on April 24, 2019

Installment #10: “Snappy Answers To Carnivore Questions”
 
By the end of April, spring is pretty much established in North Texas. The last surprise freezes and cold snaps are two weeks in the past, and we aren’t going to see any precipitation other than rain and hail for at least another six months. The temperate carnivores are either starting or finishing with blooming, and the tropicals respond to longer daylight hours with increased growth and the occasional bloom. Here at the Triffid Ranch, show season is underway: getting to an event no longer comes with the risk of everything in the truck freezing to death, and yet we haven’t hit the traditional “swimming through pools of molten concrete” heat of summer. Since we won’t see temperatures and skies like this until at least the beginning of October, we all rush out like the characters in the Ray Bradbury story “Frost & Fire,” acting as if we are born, grow to adulthood, and die of old age within seven days.
 
Because it’s show season, and because of the current boom in Dallas-area shows, a lot of people ask a lot of questions and make a lot of statements. The vast majority of these are ones I welcome and cherish: one idle conversation with a couple of Air Force airmen turned me (and subsequently a slew of friends interested in preserving them in the wild) onto a population of Sarracenia pitcher plants on the east side of the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana. I’m constantly coming across improved growing methods, new techniques and technology, and fascinating new sources of everything from heat-treated flint to vacuform tables. And the questions…oh, everyone should get at least one question per week that leaves you cupping your chin and nodding “I don’t have an answer for you, but now I want to get one.”
 
Alas, while those great questions are the next best thing to a relaxing meal and 12 hours of sleep at the end of a long day at the plant table, these aren’t the only things tossed across the table. Anyone who has ever worked retail dreads that conversation from that individual who assumes that memorizing the complete dialogue to The Princess Bride or Pulp Fiction is a suitable replacement for a sense of humor, where an item at the register that doesn’t scan automatically gets a response of “Oh, I guess it’s free, then?” (The only thing worse than the dolt who laughs loudly at his own joke is the individual who’s deadly serious, especially in stores where the line to the register already runs through most of the store.) And if they don’t get a response, they keep repeating it, louder and louder, until they either get some kind of response or they flounce off, sniffing “Well, OBVIOUSLY someone doesn’t have a sense of humor.
 
The Mad magazine artist and writer Al Jaffee is probably best known for his Fold-Ins, where the inner back cover has one piece of art that has a completely different meaning when folded in half to hide the center of the illustration. However, my second-favorite feature of  his involved his “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” feature, where the reader could pick between multiple responses to a particularly dumb question. (My favorite feature always involved his Rube Goldbergesque technology solutions, such as the range of razors that used flamethrowers, neutron radiation, or contour-following microrazors that eliminated facial hair without taking out moles, pimples, or his favorite catchall phrase, “Yecch.”) One day, I may make up a set of cards to be given out to answer questions that aren’t worth the breath, but until then, here are 29 answers I want to give and one I wish I could give:
 
#1: So far as is known, there is no such thing as a man-eating plant. It’s not completely impossible, but because of a direct confrontation with the square/cube law, finding one in the future is very unlikely.
#2: No, there’s no plant that will eat your ex. I’m sure that your ex wants an answer to that very question, too.
#3: No, there’s no plant that will eat your kids. Judging by the expressions on their faces, they’re not worried about being fed to a plant, but they’re already making plans for your senior assisted living facility. I sure hope you like rats.
#4: Yes, I’ve seen the video of the Venus flytrap biting that neckbeard’s tongue.
#5: Yes, I’ve seen the video of the Venus flytrap wearing a Santa hat and beard.
#6: YES, WE’VE GOT A VIDEO.
#7: Did you know that repeatedly screaming “Feed me, Seymour!” at carnivorous plants leads to cancer of the scrotum?
#8; No, go ahead. Scream it a little louder. Just know that the tumor has to get really big before the whole scrotum can be cut or burned off, so you might want to buy a wheelbarrow in a few days.
#9: Oh, I’m sure that you’ve seen a Venus flytrap that can close so fast on your finger that it draws blood. [CITATION NEEDED}
#10: The lids on North American, Asian, and Australian pitcher plant pitchers don’t close on insects that enter the pitcher. The lids on each genus are rain guards to keep the pitcher from filling with rainwater. Once an individual pitcher opens, nothing short of scissors or a scalpel will get that lid to close again. 
#11: Oh, I’m sure that you DO know of a pitcher plant that can close its pitcher after capturing insects, and that your uncle is raising them in an undisclosed location “so his discovery won’t be stolen.” [CITATION NEEDED] Is your uncle a baron, last name of “Munchausen”?
#12: No, I’m not offended when I explain how the pitcher lid works and you wander off with your kid, telling him/her “That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” I can only suspect that you have the same attitude toward expert advice from emergency medical techs, tax lawyers, and federal prosecutors, and that you’re going to make a large fortune by investing your 401(k) in Theranos stock.
#13: Carnivorous plants are defined by their ability to attract, capture, and digest insect and other animal prey. Please note that there’s a big difference between “attract, capture, and digest” and “control.”
#14: No, one lone Venus flytrap won’t control your housefly problem.
#15: No, one lone Venus flytrap won’t control your cockroach problem.
#16: No, one lone Venus flytrap won’t control your mosquito problem.
#17: No, one lone Venus flytrap won’t control your bedbug problem.
#18: No, one lone Venus flytrap won’t control your problem with raccoons, opossums, armadillos, fruit bats, chickens, stray dogs or cats, or kids that won’t stay out of your yard. Have you considered land mines?
#19: No, smoking Venus flytraps won’t get you high. Let your best friend Beavis test this for you if you don’t believe me.
#20: No, cannabis is not a carnivorous plant. 
#21: No, I have no interest in raising cannabis alongside the carnivores.
#22: No, there’s not “a lot of money” in raising carnivores, but that’s not why I do it.
#23: I’m actually flattered that you aren’t going to pour your retirement fund into selling carnivores because “there’s not any money in it.” Might I recommend pouring that money into Funko POP figures?
#24: Yes, I know you disapprove of anybody doing anything where “there’s not any money in it.” Might I give your kids a few helpful suggestions on senior assisted living facilities?
#25: Yes, the tags on each plant specifically states “Rainwater or distilled water ONLY.” That means that you can only water it with rainwater or distilled water in our area, because Dallas municipal water is best described as “crunchy.”
#26: No, you can’t boil tap water to make it safe for carnivores. Rainwater or distilled water.
#27: Does your bottled water read “Distilled Water” on the side? It doesn’t? Then it’s not safe for carnivores.
#28: Does your bottled water read “Spring Water” on the side? It does? Then it’s not safe for carnivores.
#29: Just because you put tap water in a bottle marked “Distilled Water” doesn’t automatically make it safe for carnivores. If educational organizations were subject to the same lemon laws as auto companies, your high school and college would have to be nuked from orbit.
#30: Wait.  You…you just made a fictional carnivorous plant reference so obscure that I haven’t come across it before. Would you like a job?

Other News

Well, some of you may have heard about the latest addition to the Triffid Ranch board of directors, but for the rest of you, you’ll find out about the new cat Simon soon enough. Yes, Alexandria finally has a chew toy of her very own to replace Leiber: the only thing aggravating about having two black cats in the house is that they both go out of their way to stalk me as I’m heading out of the house first thing in the morning. And unlike Alexandria, who is constantly amazed that my night vision is much better than that of most humans, Simon knows exactly where he can hide in deep shadow without being observed. The next few months are probably going to be full of Simon stories, as he’s a lot smarter than he lets on. Because of his habit of staring up soulfully and stage-falling at your feet, he’s already received the nickname of “Critter”: those familiar with the Clifford Simak short story “Drop Dead” will appreciate the humor.

Recommended Reading

The wait was worth it, the new Redfern Natural History book Cephalotus: The Albany Pitcher Plant is now out, and it’s no exaggeration to refer to it as the definitive guide to this oddball carnivorous plant. It’s going to come off as controversial in spots (the discussion on Cephalotus cultivars will probably set off a few bar fights), but its relatively small page count compared to other Redfern carnivorous plant volumes says more about how little Cephalotus has been studied before now. (A small note: if you want a copy, snag it NOW. Most copies were preordered, the book will not be reprinted once the current run sells out, and I suspect that the only way most people will be able to snag a copy a year from now is by staking out estate sales.)

Music

Seven words: new Hatebeak single “Birdhouse By the Cemetery“. If telling you “Hatebeak is a metal band whose lead singer is an African grey parrot” doesn’t get you to download this puppy as soon as you can, then we really don’t have anything else to discuss.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – 9

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on April 12, 2019.

You’d never know it, but garden centers and daily newspapers have a lot in common. 25 years ago, they were effective and ruthless gatekeepers for the general public, arrogant in the knowledge that they were the only game in town and you either paid their rates or went without. Now, with innumerable online resources for information and retail, independent garden centers are hanging on by the skin of their teeth the way daily newspapers are. Some are acknowledging that times have changed and that they need to cultivate new audiences before their old audiences leave forever, and others…well, others figure that if they just hold out a little longer, the calendars will all switch back to 1997, that horrible Interwebs thing will just go away and leave them alone, and all of their old clientele and sponsors will come rushing back to their rightful places. And it will, any day now. Any. Day. Now. Just you watch.
 
This all tied in with a conversation with friends about the Independent Garden Center show, a big three-day event in Chicago every August. Now, you can make jokes about how the air in Chicago in August is “too thick to breathe, too thin to waterski on,” but I’d made tentative plans to attend one of these days, just to visit Chicago for the first time since I moved from there forty years ago. Admittedly, part of the appeal was the excuse, quite popular with conference and convention regulars, that “I’ll see old friends who live near there” when you know damn well that you’ll be lucky to see the outside of the conference hotel, but I was actually enthused to see what’s going on with garden center distributors and vendors. One of these days, I hope to turn the Triffid Ranch into a full-time venue, and comparing notes with others in the field might impart wisdom that save me a lot of aggravation. And if one of the big draws at the IGC is the annual free concert by a musical act whose playlist shifted from “Classic rock” to “golden oldie” on the terrestrial radio dial in the last ten years, well, I look at that the way I look at chocolate and wine and demur with “More for everybody else.”
 
Well, that was then. Chicago friends had already related how the IGC was a bear to enter and leave, but the finale for me was the announcement that one of the keynote speakers wasn’t someone with actual horticultural  experience, but a stand-in for Rush Limbaugh whose entire schtick was alleged comedy about millennials. Now never mind the political spectrum: many of my dearest cohorts in the horticultural community are diametrically opposed to my political leanings, and we set rules up front that discussions of politics are only on subjects that directly affect our business. (Discussions on cannabis production and distribution, for instance, go wonderfully awry when everyone realizes that, appearances notwithstanding, I’m a complete teetotaler as far as marijuana is concerned thanks to various respiratory issues. This just makes the conversations about industrial hemp, of which I’m a passionate advocate, that much more interesting.) However, listening to the same people crying about how younger generations won’t get involved in gardening, then attending lectures that come off as parodies of the District Attorneys’ Convention in the book and movie Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, seems, a little, I don’t know, counterproductive. It’s like listening to the old guard in science fiction literature kvetching about how to attract new readers while mocking them at the same time: considering the costs of air travel and hotels, if I wanted to listen to a herd of seventysomething xenophobes cry impotently about how the universe dared change without their express written permission, I’d go to Armadillocon.
 
Because of this, it might be time for a new garden center conference, for those who want to blast into the middle of the 21st Century instead of pining for the 20th. The interest is there, especially with garden center employees desperately trying to convince their bosses that maybe buying a half-page ad in the local daily newspaper isn’t the best expenditure of their advertising budget. The vendors are out there, especially the ones who’d like to move from Etsy to a proper distributor. Certainly, the musicians are there. What I wasn’t expecting was the enthusiastic response from garden center managers and employees looking for something Different. This may be easier than I thought.
 
As anybody who has spent any time on Facebook will tell you, enthusiasm without commitment is worthless, so the next big hurdle is creating programming that speaks to the newer generations of garden center owners and employees. A few minutes of brainstorming came up with a few ideas for panels and workshops:
 
“Smartphones and Dumbasses”: With the expansion of custom phone apps to help identify garden plants and bugs, creating phone apps to handle other vital garden center functions is both easy and inexpensive. In this two-hour workshop, learn how to use machine learning technology to identify customers screaming “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?’, prove that your garden center has never offered unlimited free landscaping services, demonstrate what happens when you try to plant tomato plants outdoors in Chicago in February, and confirm or deny that the owner automatically gives a 70 percent discount to his/her elementary school teachers. Spend a little money now and save innumerable hours on arguments with idiots and grifters!
 
“Gravestones In the Garden”: The under-50 gardening crowd is looking for unorthodox garden decorations, and your standard distributors offer the usual endless line of twee. More importantly, YOU’RE sick of carrying the same mediocre birdbaths and wall hangings, and want to spice things up a bit. Find out where to get the best concrete dinosaurs, Daleks, kaiju, and gargoyles, how to shut down complaints about how “these are COMPLETELY inappropriate” from fussbudgets, and how to brace the customer who wants 
Dom Perignon-quality black granite tombstones but only has a Dr. Pepper budget.
 
“Electronics and Your Uncle Who Lives In A Tree”: You spend thousands of dollars on a digital signage solution to display specials, calendar events, and plant information, only to have it regularly damaged by occasional customers trying to switch the feed to Fox News. Learn how to use parental locks on remotes to stop Fox News Grandpa hijackings during busy periods, strategic mounting brackets to prevent their reaching the monitors or signage servers, and cattle prods to move them out the door after the inevitable temper tantrums. Discussions also include restroom paint that resists Infowars stickers and methods to recycle Jack Chick pamphlets.
 
“Mommy Will Be Right Back”: with Toys ‘R’ Us and Borders gone and shopping mall pet shops as obsolete as daily newspaper delivery, more and more soccer moms are looking for free babysitting and petting zoo options for their toddlers and preteens, and your garden center is a tempting target. With signs reading “Unescorted children will be given six shots of espresso and a free puppy” making less of an impression, our panelists and the audience discuss methods to keep your garden center child-friendly while preventing non-customers from draining your liability insurance policy. ($25 workshop fee, $75 for optional wood chipper.)
 
“Fan or Smartaleck”: With the current boom in science fiction/fantasy/horror fandom and fannish interests, it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between actual plant species and cultivars and ones created for books, comics, movies, and television. Do YOU know how to tell the difference between the bladderworts “Asenath Waite” and “Mrs. Marsh”, or the traits that define a “Violet Carson” rose? More importantly, can you tell the difference between a wiseacre asking about purchasing Whomping Willows and Pink Bunkadoos and the individual who honestly thinks Day of the Triffids is a documentary? Learn what to watch for, and be able to laugh politely when asked “Do you carry Slaver sunflowers?” (Guest lecturers: Dr. Dr. Pamela Iseley and Dr. Alec Holland.)
 
“But It Looked Different In the Video”: Sick of explaining to customers that those rainbow rose or blue Venus flytrap seeds offered for sale on eBay aren’t real? Tired of people arguing that they shouldn’t have to pay your prices for rare plants when Some Guy on the Internet is offering legitimate, guaranteed seeds directly from China for a pittance? Soulhurt from trying to explain the vast difference between fruit trees with multiple varieties grafted on and that “Magical Fruit Salad Plant” seed they saw advertised on Facebook? Nearly homicidal from having 1300 customers pointing to the same Pinterest post that not at all saw any Photoshop manipulation, no sir, we wouldn’t lie? Bring your phone, because we bought one of everything, and you’ll want to take photos of every last weed you’ll see when that customer comes in and asks “So what are WE going to do to get my money back?”
 
“Stand-Up Up Fight or Bug Hunt”: Apply the power of artificial intelligence to solving your customers’ greatest question: whether that blurry phone photo really shows a dangerous, venomous, or invasive insect that’s going to eat the neighborhood. Finally: the one tool to prove to skeptical customers that not every spider is a brown recluse, not every flying insect is an emerald tree borer, and that the scratchings in the new garden bed are from cats and not armadillos.
 
“Every Day is 4/20“: Whether or not your state allows recreational use of marijuana, your workweek will be filled every April 20 with stoners looking for their next distraction, and most guides to psychoactive plants are at least 40 years old. Learn the difference between garden plants that actually have some of psychotropic effect, ones which stretch the meaning of the term “placebo,” and ones with an effect but will make the user regret the day they were conceived.
 
Musical Guests: After a long day talking with vendors and fellow garden center owners/staffers, you’re going to want a break. Please join us all for a musical maelstrom that sums up the new generation of gardeners, with One Eyed Doll and Ministry opening for headliners Gwar and Rob Zombie. No Winstar Casino leftovers for THIS crowd.
 
So…Dallas in 2020? We’ll even try to schedule it for spring, so nobody melts in the heat. What say?

Other News

In separate developments, many thanks to everyone’s celebration of my late cat Leiber, and because Alexandria was mourning harder than we were, we adopted a new cat to keep her company. Considering how badly she wanted to play with Leiber toward the end, it was a matter of finding another cat as enthusiastic about tearing through the house at Mach 4 as she is. This is how we got Simon, a kitten found abandoned near the University of Texas at Dallas campus. He’s almost as quiet as Alexandria: he chirps and murmurs, but he has yet to make a single meow. The best adjective we can use for him is “goofy”: he’s sweet and definitely intelligent, but he remembers to forget that he can’t run through furniture and up walls, to spectacular effect. As of this morning, though, he picked up on Alexandria’s wonderful habit of bushwhacking me in the dark first thing in the morning, so now I have two cats who love my Bill Paxton impersonation screaming “I’m telling ya, there’s something moving and it ain’t us!” Oh, when the days start getting shorter in August, getting ready for work is going to suck.

Recommended Reading

Not that it hasn’t received justifiably rave reviews from much better reviewers than I, but go out and snag Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady From The Black Lagoon, on Millicent Patrick, the actual creator and designer of the monster suit from The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It’s not just a matter of recognizing that an exceptional talent was cut off early due to managerial jealousy (this hit a chord, as I watched a lot of this same behavior in weekly newspaper and magazine publishing), but it’s also a matter of noting that an obscure talent can become an inspiration to a whole new generation of artists given half a chance. As someone studying prop and set design in the hopes of finding new techniques and references that apply to enclosure construction, this matters more than you can know.

Music

The Texas comedian Bill Hicks once described his annual trips to dance clubs as “filling my hump of hate,” and I share that sentiment about going to most music venues. I love catching up with friends and thoroughly enjoy the music, but can’t get past the behavior of the typical showgoer, especially the dolts who feel compelled to capture whole performances on their phones and tablets…held up so that nobody behind them can see a thing. (This is right up there with getting a good location early with an unobstructed view of the stage, only to have last-minute dolts climbing up into my armpit and insisting “we should all share, right?”) Only the right band can convince me that my hump of hate is sufficiently depleted to deal with that, and the news that the band Doll Skin is on tour this year as a headliner, with a stop in Dallas, means that my hump capacity grew four sizes that day. I was lucky enough to catch the band opening for One Eyed Doll two years ago, and a dear friend practically uses the song “Furious Fixation” as a daily soundtrack, so seeing what the band is doing as a followup to the album Manic Pixie Dream Girl is worth a few attacks from the armpit trolls.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #7

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on February 27, 2019

Okay, so Amanda Thomsen and I were comparing odd tales. Most people know her as the gardening genius behind the book and Web site Kiss My Aster, but like so many of the most interesting people in botany and horticulture, she had a very interesting life before she discovered gardening. It’s not enough to make the observation that the biggest proponents of traditional Japanese gardening were samurai who were tired of war: that works for a lot of us, but not Amanda. I can tell people the tale of how I one-upped Harlan Ellison and his tale of how he was fired from Disney after four hours for joking about a Disney animated porno film with my absolutely true tale of how I got an FBI record for allegedly selling government secrets to the Daleks. (As I told Harlan, I’d NEVER sell government secrets to the Daleks. The Sontarans and Cybermen pay more.) Most people who hear this story just smile, nod, and circumspectly look for anything within reach that could become a weapon. Amanda used to work in the music industry: no matter how disturbing, incriminating, or self-flagellating the story, Amanda will stop for a second, ask you to hold her Dog ‘n Suds root beer (thereby proving her impeccable taste, as she has the old plastic jugs of fresh-poured root beer imported from 1971), and respond. That’s all she does: respond. It’s not her fault that her tales leave most people rocking on the floor, repeatedly screaming “MOMMY DADDY MAKE IT STOP!” She’s only Two Degrees of Francis Bacon from a lot of my musically inclined friends in Dallas, so I just spend my time exclaiming “That was YOU? So how DID he get the airplane seat armrest out?”

This marks the difference between those of us with stories and those without. Those of us With Stories just continue with our little game of nuclear escalation until someone drops the planetkiller, and we all head home and tell ourselves “Good thing that wasn’t me.” Those Without Stories, or without those kind of stories, applaud and exclaim “You should write another book with these stories in it.” Completely misreading the room, they’ll keep asking, too, and drop the writer equivalent of “The Aristocrats”: “It’ll sell really well, too.” Anybody else would respond appropriately, such as jumping up on the table and screaming while trying to hang themselves with their own intestines. Amanda just says “I don’t remember much from those days.” She’s not giving that answer in order to bypass having to explain how the publishing business works, or how anecdote tell-alls haven’t had as much of a market as when calendars read “1983.” She doesn’t remember: whether that’s being diplomatic or that’s a response to years of failed SAN rolls is a point of discussion. My only issue involves my own packrat memory.

The problem isn’t that she doesn’t remember any of the good stories incurred since we started hanging out online a decade ago. It’s that I can’t make the memories go away. I’m not going to tell you about the bobcat and the sleeping bag. I’m not going to talk about how her obsession with Fiestaware left her with the superpower of her teeth glowing in the dark. (When dealing with Girl Scouts, this can be an advantage and a liability, especially when they have night vision goggles and cattle prods, as Girl Scouts are expected to do.) We won’t talk about our comparing notes on how wild sunflower stems practically eat Weedeater line led to our testing the plausibility of the chainsaw duel in Phantasm 2, nor will we talk about the scars incurred when I switched to a hedge trimmer. (A friendly tip: always, ALWAYS use a gas-powered hedge trimmer, because you don’t want to cut into one of those lithium-ion batteries used in the cordless jobs.) There was the riot we accidentally started when an icebreaker questionnaire at the Independent Garden Center conference in Chicago asked “So who’s your favorite Captain: Kirk or Picard?”: she answered “Lochley” and I answered “Rhodes.” There was the midnight run on the Library of Congress to prove to her that the gothic artist Edward Gorey used to illustrate gardening books, and how we got out without breaking any windows or tasering any security guards. Any idiot can set up crop circles, but how many people can recreate Alfonse Mucha paintings in the stock at a commercial mum nursery three days before Halloween? And how that stunt is the reason why all of the fingerprints on her right hand were burned off, and all but the thumbprint on my left?

See, Amanda doesn’t remember any of this. She has a hard enough time remembering when she ran over a post-Christmas poinsettia with a 2011 Accord. She has no memories of our violating a good three dozen FAA regulations and a treaty with Brazil by sending the first kalanchoe to the International Space Station. When the next Mars rover takes photos of the 100-foot Gibby Haynes garden gnome she dropped from low orbit into the middle of Weinbaum Crater, she’s going to be as shocked as the rest of us. When I forget this, all of Amanda’s accomplishments will waft away like fog in a high wind, and that’s completely unacceptable. Please: I beg you. When you come out to one of Amanda’s book signings, don’t just tell her about how her books inspired your life. Show the tattoos. Show the CT scans. Most of all, make sure she remembers one of her greatest adventures by walking up, looking at her completely deadpan, and singing the verse “Crab salad makes you pee blue.” If she really likes you, she’ll show you the Bowie knife she nearly broke taking on a patch of scarlet trumpetvine in 2014, and she’ll tell you about how she disobeyed orders and called off the airstrike with seconds to spare. She may not remember that, but the Dalai Lama does, and he’s eternally grateful.

(Amanda Thomsen’s new book Backyard Adventure: Get Messy, Get Wet, Build Cool Things, and Have Tons of Wild Fun! 51 Free-Play Activities is coming out soon. Buy a copy for yourself, a copy for your best friend, and at least ten for your local libraries. Whatever you do, don’t ask her about the beans.)

Other News

My previous life as a science fiction magazine essayist is one of public record, and some good came from working on and for magazines that were forgotten moments after the last issue saw print. Among other things, if not for a long and very convoluted friendship with one Jeff VanderMeer, I never would have been drawn into the wonderful world of carnivorous plants. This is a roundabout way of saying that this March is a month for anniversaries: thirty years ago on March 9, my first published article, a collection of movie reviews, appeared in a long-forgotten zine. Ten years ago on March 9, the first of my last two books saw print. For the most part, with a few relapses, I’ve stayed away from professional writing since the spring of 2002, and this next month marks the publication of another relapse. Specifically, check out the March 2019 issue of Clarkesworld, and note that this little piece on sorcerers’ gardens may well be the first of many.

Recommended Reading 

If you’d told me back when I was a film critic in the early Nineties that most of the ancillary support industry for motion pictures would be completely obsolete by 2005, I would have laughed and pointed. With video releases a few months or even weeks after a theatrical run, the market for movie novelizations was already dying by the turn of the last century, as was the market for mediocre soundtracks that were the only way to get access to a current hit song. Thanks to streaming services, DVDs and Blu-Ray disks are going the way of Betamax, and with them the huge assemblage of “The Making Of” documentaries that came with the disks. About the only exception to this is the voluminous market for high-end, impeccably printed books on the concept art for films, television shows, and video games, because all of the concept art put together in the early stages of a film production can be just as inspirational as the final product.

Anyway, as someone taking a deep dive at an advanced age into enclosure design, sometimes guides to zoo and natural exhibition design aren’t enough, and it’s time to look at the unnatural. Lately, that’s been a combination of the works of Chris Foss and Syd Mead, classic film designers whose work in the Seventies and Eighties still influence movie set and prop design to this day, and pictorials from Weta Workshop in New Zealand. Lately, the browsing reading keeps coming back to The World of Kong: The Natural History of Skull Island, a pseudobestiary of the concept art from Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and The Art of District 9, which includes concept art and final props from Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film. Come back in a few months after the next run of new enclosures are complete, and you’ll understand why.

Music

For various reasons, instrumental music is a big part of the background at the Triffid Ranch. While sculpting or repotting while watching video or listening to spoken-word audio is easy, writing or sketching with either in the background is nearly impossible, and even songs with a significant portion of dialogue are impossible to navigate while composing blog posts or essays. This means that instrumental or electronica get a lot of play, especially at the Day Job, and the 21st Century marvel of streaming services means that my horizons are expanded daily. That’s why I’d like to turn everyone to Sarah Schachner: her specialty is game soundtracks, which means setting mood in particular game sequences with pieces that won’t get overly repetitious if a player spends too much time trying to work out how to move forward.

Anyway, I’ve been a fan of Sarah’s work for years (her sister is a longtime online friend), and game design is already a big aspect of inspiration for a lot of Triffid Ranch enclosures, so discovering that Sarah wrote the score for the new game Anthem means that it’s getting a lot of play in the gallery over the next month. (A project that’s still a very long way away is an exhibition of new enclosures that requires smartphones: stand in front of an enclosure and view a browser page that includes essential information about the plants and construction, while the headphones give a unique musical score that cuts off when the viewer moves to the next enclosure. Again, it’s a very long way off, but when the Triffid Ranch is big enough to pull this off, I would love to hire Sarah for the music, because.)

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #6

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on January 7, 2019

The parties are over. The decorations are put up. The Merry Christmas/Happy New Year accoutrements at the grocery store are in the clearance aisle, already marked 50 percent off or more. The shortbread cookie tins are already being used for their second lives as sewing supply containers. At the day job, managers, directors, and executive VPs are coming back from extended vacations, meaning that daily office productivity just took a hit until they rediscover their favorite bright sparkly object or until Memorial Day, whichever comes first. It may be cold and rainy, or cold and snowy, but you can walk in public without a PA system pumping carols and novelty songs at “11”. In other words, it’s time to get busy.

For those of us in horticultural venues, it’s really time to get busy, because we’re already running out of time. Halfway through January, we only have two months before the beginning of spring, which means EVERYTHING has to be done by the time everyone gets the gardening bug. Seedlings. Tissue culture meristems. Unique pots. Tent and booth fees for shows and markets. I won’t say that sleep is overrated, because that’s a cliché. I WILL say that as soon as someone develops an effective and inexpensive cure for sleep, I’m investing in the company.

This time of the year is also when fellow retailers and artists relate their favorite Stupid Human Tricks from the previous holiday season. These can include non-customers who drop their kids off at a store and assume that the staff will act as free babysitters while Mommy and Daddy shop next door, or down the street, or in the next time zone. A lot of times, it includes customers who were the owners’ elementary school teachers 40 years back and expect a special 80-percent-off discount because of that vital connection. (Every jeweler reading this just nodded in recognition.) Others relate the customer who stated “I know the owner, and he told me I get a discount”…to the owner, and she’s never seen this person in her life. And who can forget the screams of “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” and the response “Should I? Are you wanted by the police?”

2018 had a lot of stories like this at the Triffid Ranch. Now, there are the stories where the person involved was understandably mistaken and everyone laughed about it later. These stories should never be shared without permission, and usually with drinks of everyone’s choice in hand. However, there are the stories where the person involved wasn’t a customer, never would be a customer, and whose smirk of “Haven’t you ever heard of ‘the customer is always right’?” should be answered with a sack full of caltrops that reads “WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, JACK? WHO’S LAUGHING NOW?” on the side. Where this sack is inserted, and whether the sack should be electrified, depends upon the intensity of the smirk. It should never depend upon the dollar value of the transaction to be disputed: at the gallery, the worst offenders are bar owners who call to get a very big and very expensive enclosure delivered to their venue for free, because “you could use the exposure.” (Without fail, I read about these venues shutting down in the middle of the night with no warning to landlords or employees, the interior contents sold at about one in the morning to fend off coke dealer beatings, and creditors and the FBI trying to find what assumed name the owner is using THIS time. This is entertainment enough.)

After a while, when retailers get together and relax a bit, we all share our Amazon Showcase stories. This is the equivalent of the famed comedian joke “The Aristocrats,” only without a distinctive opener or punchline. All have the same theme, though: the customer has assumptions that because Amazon or eBay do things a particular way, “you should just” do the same thing. Bookstore friends relate the customers who tell them “You should start selling Kindles here,” and who escalate their assumptions when told that Kindles are an exclusively Amazon product. An acquaintance who worked in a gift shop told me about a customer pointing to a Hallmark Star Trek Christmas decoration from 20 years ago on Amazon and insisted that she could order one at the original retail price, because the Amazon price was far too high.  We all have one variation on the Monty Python bookstore sketch, and we all have a variation on the Lou Costello birthday cake sketch. The Euclidean ideal of these stories is the person who walks in, looks around, and says “Do you know someone who sells something exactly like this, but just not for so muuuuuuuuch?” The most common Amazon Showcase story, though, always involves someone who assumes that a price on Amazon should be the price everywhere else, no matter what. The Triffid Ranch has two versions: the person who bought a dead or dying plant from an Amazon reseller and expects assistance in getting a refund, or an incident that happens about once per month.

(phone rings) “Hello, this is the Texas Triffid Ranch. How may I help?”

“Yes. I’m a (doctor, lawyer, MBA, software development project manager, or other charter member of the Dunning-Kruger Club), and I’m wanting to buy a (Nepenthes rajah, Nepenthes hamata, Nepenthes attenboroughii, or other very rare, very temperamental, and very expensive carnivorous plant). Price is no object.”

“I may be able to help. Out of curiosity, have you kept a carnivorous plant before?”

“No, but I saw one on television today, and I WANT one.”

“Okay, let me check what I have in propagation right now. (Quick search.) I have one right now, in a custom enclosure.”

“I don’t want that. I just want the plant.”

“Oooookay. I can remove it if you’d like. Do you need a pot, or do you already have one?”

“My kid has an old aquarium that I can use. How much is it?”

“Well, considering the size, it would be $Price.”

“That’s completely unsuitable. Do you have any that are smaller?”

“I don’t, but I can recommend other carnivorous plant retailers who may be able to help. Have you contacted X or Y?”

“I already contacted them, and they don’t have one. You’re the only person in the Dallas area who shows up on a Google search, and I NEED one.”

“Sorry, but at $Price, I’m practically selling it at cost.” 

“Well, I KNOW you can do better. I found someone online who’s selling one for (one-fourth to one-tenth of $Price).”

“And who is this? I’m very legitimately curious.”

(Customer gives a URL for an Amazon reseller who allegedly has the plant in question. Yes, it’s significantly cheaper than the cost any legitimate nursery could charge and still make its money back. The posting also has a picture of the plant that was stolen from a legitimate nursery’s Web site, as well as the description. The reseller is also selling such wonders as rainbow rose seeds, guaranteed blue Venus flytrap seeds, and lots of other miracles whose photos have so much of a connection to Photoshop that they’d qualify for alimony if they ever separated. Odds are pretty good that the reseller doesn’t have one of these plants, and likely never will.)

“Sorry, but there’s no way I can match this price, and neither will any other legitimate nursery or retailer.”

“But THEY’RE selling it at that price! Why are you being so unreasonable? Can’t you just cooperate?”

“Again, I can’t.”

“But they’re SELLING it at THAT price.” (Sudden menace over the phone.) “I KNOW you can get one at that price, too!”

“I’ll tell you what. If they’re selling it for that price, why not get a deal and buy it from Amazon?

“Because I want to SEE it first! I don’t want to get ripped off!”

Other News

Sigh. Three months of hype on the 2019 Pantone color of the year, and the horticulture community went into overload on new cultivars and varietals of indoor and outdoor plants that match. They’re beautiful, too. I’m just disappointed. Considering the number of bladderwort cultivars named after H.P. Lovecraft characters, and the number of daylily cultivars with Star Trek references for names, not one breeder, not ONE, could name a cultivar “Rick Grimes” and cash in on millions of non-gardeners who’d be willing to take a chance? Man, I dread the announcement of the 2020 Pantone color, because we’ll probably drop THAT ball, too.

In other developments, Some of you may have already noticed cover stories in the Dallas Observer and Fangoria about the return of Joe Bob Briggs, Official Drive-In Movie Critic of Rockwall, Texas, to video thanks to the Shudder streaming service. More than a few times during my long-defunct writing career and a lot more after I quit pro writing, I was compared to Joe Bob (rarely to his alter ego, John Bloom) in writing style and intensity. That makes perfect sense, as I literally grew up with the “Joe Bob Goes To the Drive-In” column in the late and lamented Dallas Times Herald, starting in spring 1982 with the second column reviewing Mad Monkey Kung Fu. (Sadly, while the Joe Bob columns were published repeatedly in the 1990s, nobody ever put together a collection of John Bloom movie reviews written under his own byline for the Times Herald. This is a shame, because many of his reviews were funnier than the comedies he viewed. A lot of that well-deserved snark transferred over to the Joe Bob columns, and a lot more never made it to print or video: I interviewed him in 1991 for a magazine that promptly went under two weeks after I handed in the interview, and that interview included being backstage during a taping of Showtime’s “Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater” that included a review of Oliver Stone’s The Doors. You don’t worry about laughing too hard and messing up a take when the camera crew were literally falling down laughing at the same cracks.) Well, now he’s back, he’s back in Dallas, and he’s going to be one of the headliner guests at Texas Frightmare Weekend in May. To quote the man himself, heads roll.

Recommended Reading

A bushel-basket of new references led to a serious fall down an industrial design rabbit hole over the last month, but one to buy now is Typeset In the Future: Typography and Design in Science Fiction Movies by Dave Addey. The book expands extensively on the blog of the same name, which itself started as an analysis of the typography and logo design in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Anyone interested in graphic design, especially logo and icon design, will be drooling over the in-depth discussion of what makes the perfect logo of the future (which, incidentally, is funny as hell), and everyone else will drool over the interviews on what design decisions in Alien, Blade Runner, and Wall-E still hold up, which ones aged horribly, and which ones still affect modern graphic design decades later. On a personal level, Typeset In the Future helped settle an impasse in an enclosure design that had been stuck since the Triffid Ranch was in the old gallery, so expect the end results to premiere at an open house this summer.

Music

As of this month, I have known Texas blues musician Cricket Taylor for 28 years, and she was my neighbor for two of those years when we lived in Dallas’s Exposition Park in the early 1990s. (The artist’s lofts in which we lived had communal restrooms, and one of the only good things about having to get up to go to my day job at the time was listening to Cricket practice new songs in the women’s restroom because she swore it had the best acoustics in the Dallas area.) She’s one of the smartest, most considerate, and most musically talented people I know, and the fact that she’s not packing auditoriums with 30,000 people at a time is a crime. Let’s rectify that, shall we?

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #5

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on December 18, 2018

Okay, so the holiday season is going full tilt, with the expected diminishing of daylight hours in the Northern Hemisphere. All of the temperate carnivores, particularly flytraps and Sarracenia pitcher plants, should be in full dormancy by now, and stay there until at least the middle of March. Nepenthes and Cephalotus pitcher plants may not need a similar full dormancy, but they certainly won’t mind a relative rest, and giving them lowered daylight hours increases the odds of their blooming in spring if they’re mature enough. Orchids, gesneriads, aloes, euphorbias, citrus…all of these definitely appreciate a bit of rest during the winter months. The trick is knowing HOW much of a rest, and of what kind.

 For most, the rest period is determined by photoperiod, the number of light hours a plant receives per day. (One could argue that thanks to axial tilt, winter light intensity is diminished alongside the number of hours, but we’ll leave that out of the conversation for now.) As far as carnivores and protocarnivores are concerned, even species generally considered to grow all year around could use a photoperiod rest through the winter, with either decreased light or cooler temperatures or both. Tropical carnivores such as Nepenthes pitcher plants and bladderworts use photoperiod as a cue to store up energy for blooming in spring, and the tuberous sundews of Australia use photoperiod to prepare for emergence in the monsoon season. Want really spectacular blooms in spring with tropical sundews and bladderworts? Give them a rest now by matching the photoperiod of plants under lights with the outside dawn/dusk cycle. If that’s not practical, at least cut plant light to nine to ten hours per day.

With both plants under lights and ones in a windowsill, make sure to protect your plant from excessive artificial light outside of that winter lighting schedule. Moonlight is generally too weak to affect plants, and they’re already adapted to it, but street lights, porch lights, living room lamps, kitchen lights, and even nearby nightlights can adversely affect some plants’ ability to bloom. Poinsettias are an extreme example: getting those brilliant red bracts in time for Christmas requires putting them into a closet or other lightproof space at night. One flashlight, one open closet door, one porch light turned on at the wrong time before the poinsettia is ready, and you’re going to have to wait for next year.

 The worst part of this is that it seems counterintuitive, especially for those of us with SADS. Right at the time when we’re craving more and more energetic lights, photoperiod-dependent plants are asking for a cessation of hostilities. Yes, not being able to enjoy them in winter is aggravating, but come spring, when they’re exploding with blooms, you’ll be glad to have let them sleep in.

What You’ve Missed:

Oh, dear. It’s been a little while since the last newsletter, with more than a few shows and updates since then. Recent updates to the web site include:

Enclosures: Hans-Ruedi II (2018)

Enclosures: Hoodoo (2018)

The Aftermath: Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays V

The Aftermath: Swizzle’s Hawaiian Holiday Popup 2018

Personal Interlude: The Honeymoon Wall

Other News

 Well, never let it be said that the Triffid Ranch doesn’t jump onto a social media trend a half-decade after everyone else does. For those who have lovingly nuhdzed me for the last two years about setting up an Instagram account, go check out @txtriffidranch right now. For those who haven’t, head over there anyway.

Recommended Reading

Because it’s that season, it’s time to look back on the basics. Both for beginning carnivorous plant enthusiasts and those experienced growers wanting to expand their range, you can’t go wrong with the 20-year classic, The Savage Garden by Peter D’Amato. You can get more detail on carnivorous plant morphology, relationships, and ecology with the Redfern Natural History volumes, but as far as good growing tips and propagation methods, you can’t beat D’Amato’s tried and true techniques. While the original 1998 edition is still a valuable guide, the recent updated version is worth the money, especially if you to get an autographed copy.

Music

Some of you fellow Eighties brats may remember the British metal band Bad News, either for the two pseudodocumentaries on the BBC’s The Comic Strip Presents, its live tour, or its sole album. A few may have specific opinions about lead singer and guitarist Vim Fuego, guitarist Colin Grigson, bassist Den Dennis, and drummer Spider Webb Spider Webb (as played by Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, and Peter Richardson), and a few might even notice significant similarities between the two pseudodocumentaries and a pseudodocumentary that came out a year later about a band named Spinal Tap. For everyone else, it’s time for you to become familiar with a criminally overlooked vestige of Twentieth Century heavy metal history, if only for a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary release of the greatest holiday metal song ever written, “Cashing In On Christmas.” 

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale is copyright 2018 by Paul Riddell, and may be reproduced in its entirety and forwarded at will. The Texas Triffid Ranch is Dallas’s pretty much only carnivorous plant gallery, located in scenic Richardson, Texas, and is open by appointment. More information is available at www.txtriffidranch.com. With the announcement of Pantone’s new color for 2019, I now want to breed a rose that color, and name the cultivar “Rick Grimes.”

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #3

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on September 17, 2018

So it’s been raining a bit in the Dallas area this September. A good thunderstorm on Labor Day is so common that nobody is particularly surprised, but then we usually go for about three weeks of heat and dry until one good cold front passes through, bringing a classic Texas gullywasher with it. After that, we enter traditional Texas autumn, which generally runs until the end of November. Warm and dry in October is expected: the last time we actually got cold at Halloween was in 1993, where temperatures surprisingly went below freezing and we had probably our only serious fall color in a generation. This September, though, the rains keep coming. We got the usual Labor Day downpour, and then we kept Houston-level humidity interspersed with flash rains.

One of Dallas’s more entertaining meteorological phenomena is our propensity toward very compact and very intense storms forming out of nowhere, so anyone driving along Central Expressway in the late afternoon would have seen the east side of Central with a bare misting of rain and the west side so inundated that visibility was close to zero. That’s before the rains really picked up: by midnight, we received a full six inches (15.24 cm) at the greenhouse, and the rain kept coming all Saturday. We could at least blame that on the remnants of a tropical storm blasting through, but the rest of the week? Abnormally (and much appreciated) cool temperatures AND a nearly constant misting, with no significant breaks for the immediate future.

Naturally, the Sarracenia are beside themselves with joy.

As a rule, North Texas has two growing seasons, separated by the lead smelter exhaust we fondly call “summer.” The spring growing season starts somewhere between the end of February and the middle of March, depending upon how many sudden cold snaps, surprise frosts, and occasional ice and snow storms interrupt the progression. With only a couple of exceptions in the last 50 years, the St. Patrick’s Day weekend is the point of no return, where the odds of another killing freeze drop to close to nothing. The cold frames and cloches go into storage very quickly, as April temperatures rapidly turn these into vegetable steamers. All cold-weather crops such as spinach are long-dead by the beginning of May, and everything generally stops by the middle of June. At that point, we’re both too hot and too dry for much growth of any sort, and all of the indigenous flora either burns off or goes dormant for the rest of the summer.

Autumn is when everything comes back, and that particularly applies to carnivores. Pretty much all temperate carnivores react to the change in weather by growing new leaves and traps, but Venus flytraps and North American pitcher plants go overboard in both size and color. Even pitcher plants with a mediocre appearance in spring tend to have brighter colors in autumn, but white pitchers (Sarracenia leucophylla) make up for lost time in September and October. And that’s under a typical Dallas autumn, with long dry interludes between rainstorms. This September, combine abnormally cool temperatures with a long and steady mist, and the leucophylla are going berserk. At this rate, they’ll be pulling their roots up and going for walks by October 1, and they’ll keep this up well past Halloween, or until night temperatures approach freezing, whichever comes first.

And the absolute best part of the boon in good carnivore weather? Both Sarracenia pitcher plants and Venus flytraps fluoresce strongly under ultraviolet light at about 380 nanometers, but some carnivores fluoresce across a wider range than others. Sarracenia leucophylla in particular fluoresces under moonlight, which helps explain why its trap contents tend to contain an inordinate number of moths, click beetles, and other completely nocturnal prey. With the Harvest Moon on September 24 and the Hunter’s Moon on October 24, anyone in the Dallas area with leucophyllas in their carnivorous plant collections are going to be blown away. With the number of Datura stramonium flowers growing alongside the Triffid Ranch greenhouse, the effect of the full moon at zenith will quote a rather popular film at the gallery: “it’s so dark, it’ll blind you.” That is, if the storm clouds ever fade.

Recent Updates

Recent updates to the web site:

New enclosure: “Raptor” (2018)

New enclosure: “Tezcatlipoca Blues” (2018)

New Article: “Shoutout For a Friend”

New Article: “State of the Gallery: September 2018”

Other News

Firstly, those who participated in the drawing for free Harlan Ellison books should have your randomly selected paperbacks or hardcovers, along with other neat items for neat people. Well, with the exception of you, Volly. You got the best of the lot: autographed copies of The Last Dangerous Visions and the autobiography Working Without A Net, as well as DVDs of the first four seasons of Cutter’s World. Hang onto those, because they might be  valuable one of these days, right alongside the twentieth anniversary issue of Science Fiction Eye.

And for those who came to the newsletter by way of the recent Harlan Ellison giveaway, I’d like to note that Harlan Ellison Books is putting out not one but FOUR new books, including the definitive Blood’s A Rover collection. One of the collections contains the just-rediscovered scripts and synopsis for Man Without Time, a TV series intended to star Leonard Nimoy after the cancellation of Star Trek, and the story of how it was found is just as intriguing as the series concept. Preorder now so you don’t get disappointed when it sells out within minutes.

For those in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, September doesn’t just mean “a welcome break from the soul-crippling heat of summer.” It also means “reptile show season,” particularly with the NARBC reptile and amphibian show at the Arlington Convention Center on September 22 and 23. The Triffid Ranch won’t have a booth this year (although I’m thinking very long and hard about September 2019), but just look for the albino with the Triffid Ranch T-shirt on a mad quest for cork bark, Tillandsias, and axolotls.

And speaking of reptiles, it is my great pleasure to announce that the Texas Triffid Ranch just entered a partnership with DFW Reptarium in Plano to exhibit and sell Triffid Ranch carnivorous plant enclosures. Right now, we’re starting small, with the opportunity to view the big Nepenthes bicalcarata enclosure “Hans-Ruedi,” but expect a lot of exclusives as business picks up.  At the very least, DFW Reptarium is without doubt the best reptile and amphibian shop available in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the last 20 years, so come in to view Nepenthes and stay to look over panther chameleons, frilled dragons, arrow-poison frogs, and an absolutely beautiful crocodile monitor named Whisper. Whisper is worth making a lunch break trip just on her own.

Recommended Reading

Inside the Sideshow Studio (2015, Insight Editions, ISBN 978-1-60887-476-1)

Finding this in big piles at the local Half Price Books doesn’t diminish its value: this is a book that didn’t reach the audience that needed to see it. While the layout suggested that this would be a nice “look at how cool our workplace is compared to your horrible open office nightmare” press release, this is actually a very illuminating view of the organization necessary when a creative company grows beyond the “two people in a garage” stage. Just about anybody in book publishing, magazines, comics, games electronic and print, collectibles, Web content sites, and weekly newspapers has tales of venues and businesses that went under because one or two people simply couldn’t let go of an area wildly outside of their expertise, or who figured that continuity between products or product lines was unnecessary. Yes, the book has a lot of photos of employees’ work areas as all of the cool toys and accoutrements found on pretty much every desk of every tech job of the last twenty years. No, there’s nowhere near enough of an explanation of the essential tools and resources and how they differ from the office toys. That said, the book emphasizes the different essential departments in a successful licensed property company, from packaging art to publicity to shipping, by noting how everyone works together for a successful release.

Music

I could say a lot about the musical adventure that goes by the name of Ego Likeness, and add a few notes about side projects like Stoneburner and Hopeful Machines, but that would be cheating. A decade ago, I came across my first sample of the brilliance of Steven Archer and Donna Lynch thanks to a mixer CD containing the song “Water to the Dead” and “16 Miles,” and their work is a regular part of the Triffid Ranch workshop soundtrack. Sadly, I have yet to see a live Ego Likeness show: although Austin and San Antonio have a firm appreciation of Ego Likeness genius, no venue in Dallas is willing to take a chance on a booking. Let’s fix that, shall we?

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale is copyright 2018 by Paul Riddell, and may be reproduced and forwarded at will. The Texas Triffid Ranch is Dallas’s pretty much only carnivorous plant gallery, located in scenic Richardson, Texas, and is open by appointment. More information is available at www.txtriffidranch.com. And in a reality very close to ours, every film starring Mel Gibson has his parts replaced by Mel Brooks, and vice versa. Let’s see if anybody notices.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #4

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on October 12, 2018

Maclura pomifera

Right about now, phone lines and Google searches are full of questions across North Texas, both from new transplants and a few longtimers. Namely, they find strange green fruit about the size of a softball lying all about the place, with strange folds and grooves evocative of a human brain. Congratulations: you’ve just come across Maclura pomifera, also known throughout North Texas as “Osage orange,” “bois d’arc,” and “Didn’t I tell you kids to clean up that crap off the yard before it starts to smell?” As with oranges, apples, and avocados, now is the perfect time to enjoy Osage oranges as nature intended: most people use them as balls in impromptu skittles and cricket matches, and a few lobbed over a fence are great for murdering swimming pool and hot tub filters in the middle of the night. They float, they roll, they split open on impact when overripe: they’re the perfect symbol of Texas autumn. Why we don’t build giant parade floats shaped like them is beyond me.

Because of their ubiquity, I’m regularly asked about what to do with them: the tree’s wood is famous for constructing longbows and fraternity hazing paddles, but most people are at a loss with what to do with the fruit when the Google searches don’t include pie recipes. Because the Triffid Ranch strives to be a horticultural authority, below are the most commonly asked questions about the noble Osage orange and answers that may or may not be useful:

How do you locate an Osage orange tree before it starts dropping fruit?

Since the natural tendency of Osage orange trees is to freeze and wait for a predator to leave before getting up and prancing away, you have to outthink them to find them. Consider taking a bath, brushing your teeth, changing your underwear, reading instead of watching television, and turning off your phone while driving. Such contrary and antisocial behavior will confuse the Osage orange tree, causing it to display its natural phosphorescence, where it will be easy to catch and tame.

Another guaranteed way to find them is to look along sidewalks and bikepaths. Since Osage orange branches feature three-inch thorns, they’re regularly planted in suburban thoroughfares to discourage invaders and pedestrians. Whether allowed to grow foliage over a sidewalk or to have that foliage trimmed off and dropped on a bikepath, such “John Galt gardening,” if applied regularly, encourages joggers and bicyclists to find alternate routes, and is easier to camouflage than broken glass or caltrops. In this case, look for blood trails, discarded bicycle inner tubes, and yuppies screaming “I didn’t know it would take off MY face!”

Are Osage oranges edible?

Osage oranges are edible, and even tasty, if you happen to be a Columbian mammoth or a ground sloth. If you are, report at once to your local Time Agent mobilization center, because you’re really, really lost. For everyone else, the interior of an Osage orange is essentially a ball of sisal rope packed full of cotton and then soaked in lime juice, with a few sunflower seeds for flavor. If chowing down on old baseballs is your way of getting enough fiber in your diet, knock yourself out.

What do Osage oranges taste like?

Despair, depression, and unwashed feet. They’re the fruit equivalent of a Cory Doctorow novel, only with more depth and nuance. But please: don’t let me dissuade you from trying a big fibrous bite for yourself. I love watching dogs pick up toads in their mouths and then have to drag their tongues across the lawn to remove the taste of toad urine, too.

When Osage oranges fall from their tree, are they ripe?

Now that’s a stupid question. Osage oranges reproduce much like crows: when the young leave the nest, the parent will stick around to watch, but won’t actually help if the youngster gets in trouble. That’s why, for the first six months of life, Osage orange fruit have venomous quills with barbs that stick in the flesh. Early on in their history, this was to hitch rides on dinosaurs and uintatheres so their seeds were spread hundreds or possibly thousands of kilometers away from their original dropping grounds. Now, it’s so the seedlings have a ready and available source of nitrogen as their new host reaches the end of its travels and the corpse starts to rot.

Why do squirrels tear up fallen Osage oranges and leave a horrible mess in my yard?

Surprisingly, it’s not because squirrels hate you and want you to suffer. Well, that’s a factor, too, but not the only one. It has everything to do with the great squirrel god BROOOOOOOON: when squirrels pick a new king, any that can pronounce their god’s name without passing gas are automatic contenders. The next test is to seek the key to the Squirrel King’s Bedroom, which is hidden in an Osage orange bud at the beginning of the year and the fruit allowed to grow around it. Any who possess the Key and then spend a year as king are then transmogrified into the next stage of rodent evolution: the Fratbro. Leaving horrible messes in your front yard and getting indignant when called on it is just a matter of preparation for larger messes later.

How do I plant my own Osage orange tree?

The bad news: it involves blood, stolen organs, and bitter tears. The good news: it doesn’t necessarily involve YOUR blood and stolen organs.

I heard that Osage oranges could be used to repel cockroaches. How does that work?

Just follow these three steps:

Numero Uno: Hold the Osage orange over the roach to be repellled. 

Numero two-o: Aim so that the Osage orange lands near but not on the roach.

Numero three-o: Release the Osage orange, note the big thick meaty thud as it hits the ground, and watch the roach run off in the opposite direction. You would, too, if one of these nearly hit you in the head.

Okay: can you use Osage oranges to KILL roaches?

Also absolutely: if you have a good fastball, you could kill mountain lions, rhinoceroses, nematodes, lampreys, and the occasional 300-pound Samoan attorney, too. It’s all about proper application.

How do I remove an Osage orange tree from my yard if I decide I don’t want it any more?

Oh, now you’re in trouble. Osage oranges imprint on their owners, and will try to track them down when abandoned. This may involve traveling great distances, which explains how they became invasive in New Zealand. (This, incidentally, is why New Zealand has such an extensive program to prevent the introduction of exotic intruders. Osage orange/kauri pine hybrids are a wily breed that regularly knock over garbage cans, destroy dams, and interfere with orc industry. Worse, a recent cooperation with introduced Australian brushtailed possums and indigenous keas may leave most of South Island uninhabitable by humans by 2040, to an unknown purpose that may involve local sports journalism.) You now have two real choices, because saturation nuclear bombing just encourages new growth: move to Antarctica sometime in the early Jurassic, or spend more than two months in a highrise loft or other area that sets off the tree’s natural fear of heights and plastic people.

Is this accurate advice?

Let’s put it this way: come over here so I can pull your other leg, because otherwise you’re going to walk in circles for the rest of your life.

Recent updates to the web site:

New enclosure: “Woodrue” (2018)

New Article: “State of the Gallery: October 2018”

Other News

At the time of this writing, the newsfeeds are full of aftermath video now that Hurricane Michael has passed through, and the damage in the Florida Panhandle has a personal stake. Sixteen years ago, I took a job in Tallahassee that literally changed my life, and spent a lot of time in Panama City and Wakulla Springs as well. While it’s every individual’s choice as to whether and where to send aid, but the site Charitywatch has a list of recommended charities both vetted for their legitimacy and their efficiency. Me, I still owe the people of Tallahassee a debt I can never repay for their kindnesses and friendliness when I moved there, but I’m going to do my best.

In lighter discussions, the big Harlan Ellison package giveaway was a big success: everyone who responded has received their package of swag, with the exception of two friends in Canada and Australia. (To mail to them requires getting to a US Post Office during office hours in order to fill out Customs paperwork, but theirs are going out this week.) Obviously, doing this on a regular basis isn’t practical without taking another side-job, but the idea of sending off little messages-in-a-bottle on a regular basis has appeal. (Yes, you can tell I grew up during the zine days of the Eighties and Nineties, where casual acquaintances would send off 20-kilo packages of random cultural detritus for no other reason than to share the wealth.) Details will follow, but expect both random giveaways to both subscribers signing up after the previous newsletter and to the whole of the mailing list. See? I TOLD you it would be worth the effort to subscribe.

And on completely different subjects, the Spectrum Awards, which honor the best of fantastic art, just opened for the 26th annual awards, and this is the first year the Triffid Ranch submits photos. The original plan was to do so at the beginning of 2017, and then the move from the Valley View gallery got in the way, and a lot of life intruded on doing so in 2018. Next year’s Spectrums, though, are an option: I have no delusion of winning any category, but I’d like to know that I’d qualify for inclusion in the big annual volume. And so it goes.

Recommended Reading

For the last ten years, Stewart McPherson and the rest of the crew at Redfern Natural History has set the standard for the ultimate in books on carnivorous plants and carnivorous plant habitats, and most of us had no idea that he was only getting started. Redfern Natural History’s guides to Sarracenia and Nepenthes pitcher plants usually contain personally witnessed information only released to the public weeks or even days before the publication of new books (the Nepenthes guides have been rendered obsolete by McPherson’s own research to the point where Redfern has published paperback booklets on the newest available information), and Redfern’s guides to Heliamphora pitcher plants may not be exceeded in this century. At the gallery, the carnivorous plant reference library was a very small shelf before Redfern Natural History came along, and now I need more room. This is all preamble for the much-anticipated Redfern volume on Cephalotus follicularis, the Australian pitcher plant, coming out at the end of the year. Buy it NOW, before the preorders are sold out.

Music

In a better timeline than the one that we’re in now, I wouldn’t have to tell you about Hail Sagan. Talent should tell, and darkwave would be leading a renaissance in terrestrial and satellite radio, especially for those of us who survived radio in the Eighties. However, since we’re stuck with the Paratime level we’re on, we can make up for this disgrace by getting word out. And as soon as the band tours again, you WILL know about any tour dates near Dallas.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale is copyright 2018 by Paul Riddell, and may be reproduced in its entirety and forwarded at will. The Texas Triffid Ranch is Dallas’s pretty much only carnivorous plant gallery, located in scenic Richardson, Texas, and is open by appointment. More information is available at www.txtriffidranch.com. And in yet another parallel reality, a 61-year-old Sid Vicious is strapping on his bass guitar and going on stage in Branson, Missouri…to open for Scott Weiland.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #2

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on August 30, 2018

Okay, so it’s been a little while since the last newsletter, but life intruded. Honest. Let’s see: several gallery open houses, including our recent third anniversary event on August 18. Lots of wrangling on new enclosures, including some custom commissions and a literary-themed Mexican butterwort enclosure inspired by the Ernest Hogan novel Smoking Mirror Blues, and preparation for more by mid-October. There was the big carnivorous plant workshop at Curious Garden near White Rock Lake, and medical issues around Texas Frightmare Weekend that still give me creaks in my left ankle. (Ever get your teeth into a really good chunk of gristle in chicken or beef and decide to crunch down? That’s what I hear in my left ankle and right knee on rainy nights.) The author Harlan Ellison died, and the carnivorous plant expert Adrian Slack died. I could just send you to the main Web site for all of those details, and that’s probably the best option for rehashes and updates The newsletter is best for new content.

 As for all of you new subscribers, welcome. The purpose of this little missive isn’t just to pass on news and information about Dallas’s pretty much only carnivorous plant gallery, although that’s going to be about 70 percent of its weight by volume. Its stated purpose is to become a replacement for the old Triffid Ranch Facebook page, particularly by sharing information that won’t disappear in your news feed or that doesn’t have to be boosted in order to be seen by more than ten people. It’s also a great way for readers to hang onto links and recommendations and act on them if desired: how often have you been ready to click a link for a new book or event, only to have Facebook reload the page and lose that link forever? None of that here. This is for sharing with no expectation of return, not to goose someone’s stock prices. Hence, why the recommendations and referrals appear on the bottom, so you’re more likely to act on them.

Other News

A lot has happened in the last few months, and one of the most bittersweet involves local artist Larry Carey, the creator of that incredible Triffid Ranch mandala featured on posters and T-shirts for the last five years. I worked for and with Larry for three-quarters of a decade, and our coffee-break conversations about innumerable subjects were an inspiration for research that still surprises me to this day. Anyway, Larry is leaving the Dallas area (I’m not at liberty to say where just yet, but he’s apparently much happier already), and without his inspiration and encouragement, the Triffid Ranch wouldn’t be anything close to what it is today. Godspeed, Larry, and thank you for my having to triple-research everything before I made a statement.

In other developments, the Dallas Observer Best of Dallas Awards nominees for 2018 are out, and voting continues for the final awards until September 8. Now, it’s not necessary to write in the Triffid Ranch for “Best Carnivorous Plant Gallery” because it won last year’s Best Of Dallas Award (but feel free to do so if you’re having fun with the concept), but vote for the other entries anyway. I’m feeling rather protective of the Observer as of late, and it’s time to let its current crop of writers and artists know that we appreciate them.

Recommended Reading

Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980

Bogdanović by Bogdanović: Yugoslav Memorials through the Eyes of Their Architect

Both volumes are supplements to the current Toward a Concrete Utopia exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition was spurred by online interest in the modernist memorials misrepresented as Communist tributes instead of war memorials, and both books go into both the inspirations for these massive constructs and their current situations. Some were destroyed in war after Yugoslavia tore itself apart, others were neglected, and many are undergoing restoration and reconstruction as a tribute to the past. Considering how little information existed on the entire movement in the West until very recently, and how many of them were designed to weather and age with their environments, I’m recommending them as essential references for both general landscape and green rooftop designers, especially those who like their statements BIG.

Music

With the sheer range of music available through Apple Music or Spotify, it’s hard not to fall down a rabbit hole when encountering genres or movements, and I’ve been a sucker for interesting movie and television soundtracks since the late Seventies. It’s hard to tell if the Epic Score crew is responsible for a particular feel in soundtracks (the group’s work is regularly heard in movie trailers and game demos) or if it’s highlighting existing trends, but you’ll swear that you’ve heard at least one track in a big movie within the last ten years. Either way, the most recent hybrid action album, Prometheus Rising, is quite handy in the gallery as background music while sculpting and painting, and the album Distorted, Vol 1 is a perfect soundtrack for weeding in the greenhouse.

The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale – #1

(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)

Originally published on April 23, 2018

Okay, so a newsletter? An email newsletter in 2018? Did the clock shift back two decades and return to a day where CD-ROMs and CRT monitors are still the standard? Don’t you know that social media is THE way to reach customers, vendors, and interested passersby? Are you still using a flip phone or something?

Ahem. Here’s the explanation for the item you currently have in your email archive. As a concept, social media is great, but it’s getting, well, a little high-strung. It’s a great group of places to lose a few hours while waiting for the UPS guy to sneak up and leave a “We couldn’t reach you!” Post-It, but it has so little of the oomph for business that it had at the beginning of the decade. A lot of this was inevitable: with over a billion people on Facebook, so much will fall off the radar just because it doesn’t meet one of Facebook’s new algorithms. By 2018, sharing new content on Facebook makes money and attracts customers for Facebook, and that’s about it. By way of example, an absolutely unexaggerated and hyperbolic description of a day on Facebook:

(Wakes up early and chipper, spends an hour sifting through requests and comments before starting the day.)

Me: “I have a thing!”

(Crickets.)

Facebook: Your recent post is getting more responses than 90 percent of the posts on your Page!  Would you care to pay $50 to boost it so it can be read by more people?”

(Contemplates whether it’s important enough to get out there, decides “Yes.”)

(Posts a news article on a topic of interest to the Page readership: crickets.)

(Five notices on Facebook Messenger from acquaintances, all with the subject “OMG Did You See This?” Every last one is of the article posted five minutes earlier.)

Facebook: “You didn’t respond quickly enough to your messages. Respond faster to turn on the badge!”

(Note more messages, all from the same person within a 5-minute period, demanding to know if the gallery is open at 2 in the morning. Discover that the person in question was parked in front of the gallery, having stopped by at 2 ayem on the way back to Abilene, absolutely furious that the words “Open By Appointment” aren’t synonyms for “Open 24 Hours.”)

New message: “I bought a fern at Walmart six months ago, and it’s dying! HELP ME!!!!!!!”

New message: “I see that you wrote about a plant you saw in Nicaragua four years ago, and I need to come by and buy one. Don’t tell me to buy one online, because I don’t buy anything online.”

New post on the Page: “I have Venus Flytrap seeds for sale! Real flytrap seeds: not weed seeds at all! Buy them at Ebay, seller name ‘AbsolutelyNotScammer’.”

(Suddenly realize that Facebook changed its preferences AGAIN, and anybody can post. Lock down page again.)

New Message: “I wanted to let everyone know about the garage sale I’m running this weekend, and I can’t post it on your Page. FIX IT!”

Response to original “I have a thing!” posting:  “Did you see this?” (Blanketbombs fifty people with the same bad video about Venus flytraps biting some neckbeard’s tongue and drawing blood.)

Me: “Ummmm…That’s not quite accurate. In fact, it’s not even remotely accurate.”

Idiot: “YES IT IS! LOOK IT UP!”

(Go back to read an interesting post shared by a friend of a friend, only to have Facebook reload the news feed and cause the post to disappear forever.)

New Message: “Hello? I need to let people know about my garage sale in Boise! I have a couple of flowerpots for sale!”

New Message: “I bought Venus flytrap seeds from a seller on Ebay, and they turned out to be weed seeds. How are we going to get my money back?”

New Message: “I bought a Venus flytrap at Walmart, and I don’t know anything about it. Tell me everything I’ll ever need to know about caring for it, right now.”

(Respond with a collection of links that should answer all of the questions.)

New Message: “No, I want YOU to tell me. And right now, because I have to get to work.”

Response to original posting: “I’m having a garage sale, and you’re all invited!”

New Message: “My post about the Venus Flytrap seeds for sale is gone. Fix!”

New Message: “I’m a doctor/lawyer/real estate executive, I just read about this incredibly rare and exceptionally hard-to-raise pitcher plant that I HAVE to have for my office, and nobody in North America has one for sale. Do you take Bitcoin?”

Response to original posting: “ANYBODY WHO DOESN’T AGREE WITH MY POLITICS NEEDS TO DIE!”

New posting: “Is Facebook turning into LiveJournal circa 2010, or into CB radio circa 1976?”

Response to new posting: “THEY NEED TO DIE!”

Facebook: “Would you like to boost your new post?”

(Goes to bed.)

Meanwhile, over at Twitter, one of the platform’s biggest strengths is consolidating scientists and researchers to where they can cross interdisciplinary boundaries thirty times before breakfast:

(Innumerable people much smarter than I’ll ever be sharing their latest research)

“Hello? I have a thing!”

(Take in their research for the next six hours, flabbergasted at the variety and range of subjects being discussed, and trying not to cry “I suck! I suck!” every fifteen seconds.)

“I’m going to go over here for a while, but I have a thing if you’re interested.”

(Spends the next two days working on cheap and effective time travel in order to go back to 1989, confront my previous self about his lack of ambition, and beat him to death with a cricket bat.)

And that’s the “why” behind “why a newsletter?” It serves multiple purposes: it might be buried in an email box, but it’s more likely to be read than a newsfeed that’s completely reconstituted with the push of a “Back” button. A newsletter format allows a lot of extra related topics to be shared without separate postings, it’s amenable to being converted into print form for shows and events, it’s easy to archive for those wanting to fall down a rabbit hole on a dull Sunday afternoon, and it’s remarkably hard to hijack. It’s been a decade since the Triffid Ranch had a newsletter, and this should be an interesting project. After all, if my friend Alan Robson can keep a fun and useful newsletter going for the last two decades, maybe it’s time to jump back in.

Developments and Projects

For those who haven’t been to the Web site for a while, the Enclosure Gallery section is a bit loaded, and expect to see more in the next few months after the spring show season ends. Of particular note is a new enclosure that premieres next month, as a culmination of several months of very, VERY precise and tedious glasswork. Of course, the real fun involves the next two, where the lessons imparted by the first help cut down on development time on the second and third.

Gallery Shows

Thanks to the vagaries of Texas climate, the last two Triffid Ranch gallery shows had the unfortunate habit of coinciding with extreme weather. Back in February, the pre-Valentine’s Day Date Night opening came with ice storms to the north and west; April’s show had tornadoes to the north and hailstorms to the south, with lots of rain in the center. (Recovering from bronchitis the latter weekend meant having to skip out on the final day of the Deep Ellum Arts Festival, which was only then draining dry from the three to five inches of water under every tent in the festival.) The plan for next June’s gallery show is to avoid anything other than THE INSIDES OF MY LUNGS ARE ON FIRE heat (better known as “the end of June” in Dallas), and take advantage of the attractions of nighttime activities and air conditioning for those not wanting to leave over the extended Fourth of July/Canada Day weekend. Expect details soon.

Out-Of-Gallery Experiences

This being the middle of April, the biggest Triffid Ranch show of the year starts the first weekend of May when Texas Frightmare Weekend opens, and that’s not all that’s planned. The annual trip to Austin in November for the Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays gift show happens the weekend of November 11, and I’m currently awaiting word from several other art shows in North Texas over autumn. Meanwhile, Frightmare is the important show, with a worldwide pool of attendees and vendors to match. Carnivorous plants aren’t the sole reason for coming out to Frightmare, but they add a particularly appropriate spice, so expect a lot of photos up on the main site after it’s all done.

Soundtrack

One of the interesting side effects of so much time in the gallery and the commutes to and from the site is getting caught up on intriguing music in a way that would have been impossible in the days before streaming services. (Seriously, anybody with a nostalgia for the 1980s wasn’t there, especially when it came to buying or listening to music. Do you really want to go back to the days when the only options in most areas were shopping mall music shops like Musicland and Sound Warehouse, where asking for anything other than Phil Collins or Huey Lewis got sneers of “We don’t carry anything that isn’t from a major label”? I bet you get nostalgic for Waldenbooks, too.) Combine that with the ability for fans of particular styles and genres to get together in ways that were equally impossible 30 years ago, and we have whole new genres and subgenres exploding like unwatched trumpetvine.

Such is the case for Austin-based One Eyed Doll: twenty years ago, if you’d said “Hey, I really have a hankering for goth music that’s laugh-out-loud funny,” you might have been pointed in the direction of Voltaire and that’s about it. In that intervening time, the pairing of guitarist and vocalist Kimberly Freeman and drummer “Junior” means a range of everything from hilarious (“Because You’re a Vampire”) to ultraserious (“Eucharist”) that becomes more listenable with every album. Live shows are a trip, too, and the band plays often enough in Dallas that it might be time to see about getting together a Triffid Ranch crowd for the next tour.

Shoutouts and Kickbacks

Those brand new to the Triffid Ranch may not know this, but fifteen years of carnivorous plant cultivation was preceded by 13 years of professional writing career, starting with long-dead and unlamented zines and culminating with long-dead and unlamented national magazines and weekly newspapers before the decision was made to leave early to avoid the rush. Some friendships didn’t survive the transition, but two friendships were vital in escaping the urge to backslide.

The first, Jeff VanderMeer, might be a name that you recognize, thanks to the movie adaptation of his novel Annihilation that saw release back in March.  My friendship with Jeff was a pivot in my life without realizing it: after quitting pro writing in 2002, my life was at serious loose ends, and when a company I didn’t know called about a technical writer position in Tallahassee, Florida, I asked the one person I knew from Tally “So what’s it like?” His “Oh, God, you aren’t going to be my NEIGHBOR, are you?” whimper didn’t dissuade my packing up my old Plymouth Neon and moving halfway across the continent, and while the job that brought me out there imploded after three months, the addiction to carnivorous plants that started 24 hours after arriving in town continues stronger than ever. For that, I can never repay Jeff’s kindness, including asking me “Give me one good reason why I should let you live” the first time we met face to face. (I was raving about seeing my first tree frog outside of a zoo enclosure to someone who had lived with them all of his life, so I definitely don’t blame him.)

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that the paperback edition of Jeff’s novel Borne just saw release, with all sorts of extras in the back. (It’s been a while since I bought any books that weren’t nonfiction, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find study and reader group guides, additional glossaries and pictorials, and other extras as an inducement to buy a trade paperback edition.) Borne is enough of a read, full of ecological collapse, ribofunk technology, and a Godzilla-sized venomous flying bear named Mord, among many other joys. Jeff is currently on tour to promote the paperback version, so if he should drop in your vicinity, just walk up to him with your newly purchased copy and ask him “So what the hell is the problem with that plant guy in Texas?”, just to watch the expression of utter collapse and defeat before he starts screaming into his hands. Trust me: Jeff will thank you for it.

And because we need to focus on the other side of North America, let’s look at Arizona. My friendship with Ernest Hogan started with his justifiably beating on film reviews he described as “ecstatic press releases,” and the hits just kept coming. Ernest and his wife Emily Devenport are both exemplary writers and serious natural history enthusiasts, spending much of their free time in the desert, and neither of them have given me much grief for nearly thirty years of abuse. Ernest’s third novel, Smoking Mirror Blues, was just reissued in an expanded E-book edition through Amazon, and Em’s newest novel Medusa Uploaded is coming out in May. Make sure to buy copies for all of your friends (the covers on both gave me ideas for upcoming plant enclosures for months), and if they both hit the New York Times Bestseller List, maybe Em will finally forgive me for the “Stimpy” joke.

Errata

That’s about it for now. As promised, this newsletter is irregular, and neither will you be overloaded with too many, but your privacy is paramount. It’s the least we can do.

State of the Gallery: September 2018

It’s midway through the month already. We’re now a little over a week away from the official autumnal equinox, and just over six weeks until Halloween. Next thing you know, the calendar will have switched over, we’ll be looking over New Year’s Eve 2631, preparing for the Gorash Annexation to set up outposts and the occasional clearance outlet on the other side of our galaxy, and wondering if it really was such a great idea to de-extinct the moa and let them go feral in the Canadian Rockies…but perhaps I’ve said too much.

Over here at the Triffid Ranch, frantic work for the next open house is the order of the day, especially with the number of outside shows and events between now and the end of the year. After a lot of deliberation, particularly with input from people unable to get free on Saturdays to attend previous open houses, the next open house is scheduled for October 26 from 6:00 to 11:00 CST. Yes, a Friday night. Depending upon the success of this open house, we may try a few mid-week open houses as well, especially as football season gets going and Dallas traffic goes from “typically abysmal” to “blow up every highway in the state and require everyone to ride a bike for a month to learn some humility.”

Related news: partly to improve opportunities for people to see the latest Triffid Ranch enclosures outside of open houses and appointments, and partly to help fill a niche with the best damn reptile and amphibian shop in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, the Texas Triffid Ranch is now partnering with DFW Reptarium in Plano to offer new carnivore enclosures at the Reptarium. For those who haven’t visited it already, the Reptarium is a  herpetophile’s joy, starting with the store’s mascot: an absolutely stunning crocodile monitor named “Whisper” who lives in the front window. In addition to the store’s assemblage of panther chameleons, arrow-poison frogs, emerald tree boas, and the world’s most mellow frilled dragon, the Reptarium now has the Nepenthes bicalcarata enclosure “Hans-Ruedi,” and more will be available based on customer response. In other words, this holiday season is going to be VERY busy.

In the interim, October also features an outdoor show on October 13, thanks to the Garland Urban Flea in, unsurprisingly, Garland, Texas. This marks the first Triffid Ranch show ever held in Garland, and the weather should be absolutely stunning. The October Urban Flea runs from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm, so feel free to stop by for the last of the season’s Venus flytraps and threadleaf sundews.

And for those who might be coming across these missives via Facebook, be warned that a Triffid Ranch Facebook presence is shrinking and will continue to do so. The constant push to boost FB page posts was already becoming annoying, as they still weren’t reaching the people who chose to receive page updates. Now, new posts disappear immediately after entering them, only to pop back up days or weeks later. And then there’s Facebook’s page messaging system, which penalizes page owners if they don’t respond to any message sent to the page within minutes. This means either hiring someone to manage a social media presence (which I suspect is the hope), or get dinged for getting a message minutes after going to bed for the night and answering it only after waking up. Either way, it’s once again time to note that no such problems exist with the Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale, of which a new installment will be out very shortly. Go forth with the clicky to get newsletter-exclusive news and commentary, and occasional cool and educational prizes.

Well, back to the linen mines. Expect a few new enclosure premieres before the end of September, including a fun little commission: it’s either ramping up the enclosure releases or having a really slow holiday season. And on the holiday season, expect some extra surprises with this year’s Nightmare Weekends Before Christmas events. It’s absolutely amazing how much you can get done when you’re not unpacking from an unscheduled move…

The Great Texas Triffid Ranch Newsletter Subscription Drive

Two separate phenomena, seeking convergence:

One. Thirty years ago, I purchased an anthology written by one of my favorite authors at the time. The author was Harlan Ellison, the volume was Angry Candy, and the theme was death. Specifically, Ellison was 54 when I purchased my copy, and every story had been conceived and finished at a time when it seemed as if all of his friends and cohorts were dying. To look at the timeline he included with his introduction, he wasn’t kidding: childhood heroes, contemporaries, students…it was a horrendous chronicle of funerals and eulogies, and they seemed to concentrate within the previous three to four years. Three decades later, I understood the logic behind that pattern: when you’ve lived long enough to have a large assemblage of friends and acquaintances, you run into a convergence of demographics, mortality statistics, and confirmation bias that really appears to be an active effort to kill off everyone you know.

Again, it took me three decades to understand the feeling, especially after losing several people I knew and admired at the time I was reading Angry Candy. Harlan’s death this year just added to the sensation of feeling big chunks of your old life peeling off like old scabs, with twinges of pain and interesting new scars. One of the big messages the scars leave is that once you get to a certain age, if you’ve made an active effort to go in a different direction, you can look back and mark the exact year and month that your life diverges from Before to After. A lot of people never do: these are the people on Facebook desperately nagging about high school class reunions and how “you really need to be

there, because you’ll regret not getting back in touch.”

Two. For the most part, I love living in the future. The thought of going back to where things were in 1998 or 1988 (much less 1978) brings on waves of nausea instead of nostalgia. Every once in a while, though, reviving a nearly-dead concept has its merits. In the case of the eternal Port-o-John fire that is Facebook, it works less and less at what it was originally intended to do: stay in touch. Between the ever-changing algorithms determining what users may and may not see, the ever-increasing push for businesses to pay for willing subscribers to see posts (and then watching as those posts are buried in the main timeline under idiot memes and political diatribes), and Facebook’s lackadaisical attitude toward personal privacy, it’s once again time to back off and consider the brevity and efficiency of email newsletters. The reader opts in, the writer provides regular updates, and no interruption from that grade school classmate who sees messages to and from the reptile men from Arcturus in contrail patterns.

The phenomena converge:

About a decade ago, a big scab came free when I sold off the majority of my writing library on eBay. This was a matter of getting rid of reference materials, review copies (you’d be amazed at how many critics will hang onto advance reading copies of books because of that one neckbeard who claimed “you never actually read it!”, just to recite line and verse as to passages that justified a particular review), magazines containing published articles, and the innumerable books read, or that should be read, while building a voice. The vast majority went out early, only to discover that particular books are only valuable if someone is willing to pay the price, and that there’s a huge disconnect in perceived value between a book that can stay on a shelf or in a bookseller’s transport box until it finds a buyer, and a book that has to move within a week in an online auction.

In a subsequent evaluation of current library needs, though, I came across a cross-section of Harlan Ellison collections that escaped the original slaughter. It already was time to find them new homes, as I already know the stories by heart, and rereading them just doesn’t work when too much new reading keeps intruding. This came at a time when younger friends complained about the unavailability of much of Ellison’s work, both between earlier books being out of print and later books being snapped up from used bookstores and hoarded until the inevitable estate sale. That gave me an idea directly involving a much-needed relaunch of the Texas Triffid Ranch newsletter, and one where everyone wins.

In essence, here’s the deal. I’m looking for subscribers, and I have a big pile of Harlan Ellison books that need new homes. For the next nine weeks, this is the scenario that runs every week:

Numero Uno: Subscribe to the Texas Triffid Ranch email newsletter. It’s free, it’s going to come out once per month or so, you can unsubscribe at any time, and none of your personal information will be shared with ANYONE. (That’s why I’m putting out word about the subscriptions here. As easy as it would be to sign up friends and acquaintances, I refuse to do so without their permission and prior knowledge.)

Numero Two-O: Every Sunday starting on August 12, five lucky subscribers will be picked from the general subscriber pool, contacted for a mailing address, and given a randomly selected book from the pile. Said book will come with various magazines, flyers, stickers, and other cultural detritus to be determined, and the recipient gets it all delivered for free. This will run every week while supplies last. (Incidentally, signing up early means a better chance of winning at the beginning of the giveaway, so jump in now while you have the chance.) This applies worldwide, so anyone reading this from Antarctica is in for a serious surprise.

Number Three-O: You get a new (to you) book, including the possibility of rare volumes, I get more bookshelf space, and everyone wins.

Now, as to what is involved, the photos list most of it, but I’d like to point out a few extras. Among others is an autographed copy of one of Ellison’s early novels, Spider Kiss, when it was first published under the title “Rockabilly!” There’s also a copy of Six Science Fiction Plays edited by Roger Elwood, containing what was the only publication of Ellison’s original screenplay for the Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever” for twenty years. Likewise, the paperback edition of Wandering Stars contains Ellison’s classic short story “I’m Looking For Kadak,” still one of my favorite stories. While Ellison’s recounting of the nightmare of being the story editor for the Canadian television series The Starlost is well-known, Ben Bova’s The Starcrossed was a barely fictionalized comedy about his involvement as the science advisor for The Starlost, with Ellison slightly fictionalized as “Ron Gabriel” and included on the front cover. A rare copy of From the Land of Fear contains what may be the cigarette ad that inspired his essay “Driving In the Spikes” on personal revenge. (For those unfamiliar with the situation, the ad was a violation of Ellison’s contract with the publisher, and when the publisher ignored the contract, things culminated with Ellison mailing the publishing company’s comptroller a dead gopher, sent Fourth Class Mail.) This includes several copies of The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, including the first printing of The Other Glass Teat published only after Spiro Agnew left the White House. (And that was a story in itself.) Finally, the collection includes a limited-edition slipcased hardcover of A Lit Fuse, the Ellison biography published two years ago. What’s not to like about this?

So again, subscribe and get free stuff. Better, feel free to let friends and cohorts know, so they can get free stuff as well. Best of all, if I really hate you, if I really, really loathe you and want you to suffer, you could get the booby prize: one of two volumes from a notorious fourth-rate Harlan Ellison impersonator from the 1990s. If that doesn’t clean out your lower GI tract all at once, I don’t know what will.

State of the Gallery: August 2018

The days end the way they begin: covered with glue, paint, epoxy putty, and random bits of styrofoam. First comes the watering, and you don’t want to know how much water moves through the gallery on a weekly basis. The floor of the gallery is a concrete slab, and yet you’d swear that it listed back and forth like a sailing ship deck. Either the sundews have evolved speaking apparatus or the sleep deprivation has reached the point of no return, because their conversations are so BORING. And then there are the people wanting to come by at 3 in the morning, and I have to explain “I don’t care if you’re from D magazine! I don’t have any coca plants here! No, wait, I don’t have any at all! No flowers in this town: only carnivorous plants.” And that’s when I start screaming “The floor is LAVA!”, because I’ve wandered outside into the parking lot and lava isn’t anywhere near as hot. At what point will the heat break and my brain stop impersonating a toasted marshmallow?

Oh, hi. Um, never mind me. Just getting things ready for the next gallery open house. Just do me a favor and look behind you. Do you see my dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth? Cool: so it’s not just me.

A bit more seriously, the best analogy for August in Dallas comes from what the late author Harlan Ellison described as “the hour that stretches.” Apparently space-time is as bent and warped by overstressed air conditioners as by gravitic anomalies, because you wake up one morning and figure “Oh, I have five weeks to get everything done, and I’m not going to slack off, so I’m going to start now.” Look down for a second and then back to the clock,  and everything has to be finished in an hour before everyone arrives. You KNOW you’re working, and you KNOW you’re making better progress than ever before, and it’s still not fast enough to deal with that hour that stretches. Hence, after this gets published, it’s back to the workspace, because carnivorous plant enclosures don’t make themselves. I know this from experience.

The biggest news, of course, is that the Triffid Ranch celebrates three years as a gallery this month, which means it’s time for another open house. Specifically, the Texas Triffid Ranch Third Anniversary Open House starts at 6:00 on Saturday, August 18, and ends pretty much when everyone goes home. Besides the novelty of the event itself (I look at pictures of the first ArtWalk at the old Valley View location and jawdrop as to how far everything has come since 2015), this open house includes the premieres of new enclosures, a custom cake designed and baked by the one and only Angela Nelson, and samples of that horsecrippler cactus ice cream mentioned last month. This is, of course, in addition to the opportunity to take home your own carnivorous plant enclosure or talk about commissioning a custom enclosure. As always, Triffid Ranch open houses are family-friendly events, too, so don’t feel obligated to leave kids at home.

As far as outside events and shows are concerned, one of the best things about living in North Texas is that autumn lasts until the end of the year, and as soon as the heat starts letting up in September, everyone rushes outside to breathe fresh air. (Every vendor familiar with outdoor Dallas shows can appreciate the Ray Bradbury novella Frost & Fire, because it hits all of the notes on show setup and teardown.) This means that everyone waits until the middle of August to get word on acceptance into big shows in late October. Since we’re not quite there yet, the wait for word from several local shows in October is almost painful. In the interim, though, the next three big shows in which you can expect to see the Triffid Ranch booth include:

Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays 5: November 11 in Austin. It may be a one-day show, but the Horror For the Holidays events have three things going for them: the people running them, the people attending them, and Central Texas when the heat breaks. Not only is this a chance to say hello to a lot of Triffid Ranch regulars who can’t always get up to Dallas for every event, but it’s a perfect time to get out of town for a road trip without worrying about the plants cooking on the way down. (It also revives good memories of when the litcon Armadillocon used to run opposite Texas/OU Weekend, instead of just before fall classes started at UT-Austin, back when the convention actually encouraged attendees under the age of 60.) Of course, that’s not the only reason to come out: if you’d told most anybody of the untapped potential for dark and dire gifts before the release of The Nightmare Before Christmas 25 years ago, they’d have laughed and pointed. Horror For the Holidays just screams back “WHO’S LAUGHING NOW?”

Dallas Fantasy Fair: November 24 and 25 in Irving. A quarter-century ago, the autumn Dallas Fantasy Fairs served a very specific purpose for those of a certain bent: when the house was full of distant relations, the television full of either Christmas specials or football, and most public venues full of Dawn of the Dead cosplayers, it was a chance to get away from the house, talk to people who wanted to talk about something other than work or raising kids. Things have changed a lot since then, as the internet was just getting going when the last Fantasy Fair ran in April 1996. Sometimes you have to let something go fallow for a while in order for it to come back stronger and better, and nearly 23 years should be plenty of time.

Texas Frightmare Weekend: May 3 through 5 at DFW Airport. Every year, I look at the lineup of guests and events and figure “There is NO WAY that the Frightmare crew will be able to top what they’ve accomplished here. NO WAY.” Every year, the Frightmare crew comes by my table and laughs and points over my assumptions. That’s fair, because at the rate Frightmare exceeds the previous year, we may get a panel with special guest speakers Lon Chaney Sr., Mary Shelley, Clark Ashton Smith, and Lemmy in 2020. In the meantime, the 2019 Frightmare gets Tim Curry as its headliner guest, which means I have even more to accomplish over the next nine months than ever before. (For those unfamiliar with Tim Curry’s horticultural accomplishments, his hacienda garden in Los Angeles is world-famous, and he’s also a leading authority on agave cultivation and propagation, so I will NOT be caught flatfooted in 2019 if he decides to come by the Triffid Ranch booth to look around.) And this is just the first guest announcement after opening up ticket sales: the next nine months are going to be interesting.

In other developments, expect a much more enthusiastic schedule for the poor neglected newsletter, partly because of the ongoing Port-O-John fire that is Facebook. The other reason is that I’ve missed email newsletters, and I’ve missed the community that invariably sprouts up with them. Because of that, it’s time to do a proper relaunch, and that includes free surprises for randomly selected subscribers. Expect details within a few days, but trust me: it’ll be worth it.

Finally, for those in the Dallas area or those sympathetic to the area, it’s time to vote in the Dallas Observer Best of Dallas Awards. This isn’t a plea to enter the Triffid Ranch for any number of categories. I won an award last year, which was more of a surprise to me than anyone else, and that’s good enough. Instead, it’s a matter of letting everyone outside of Dallas know what we have going for us, and that the cliché of big hair and shopping malls is one we’re killing one inch at a time. Besides, the last five years drastically changed my view of the Observer: it’s not the smarmy entitlement farm that it was back at the turn of the century, and I bow to no one in my admiration for dining critic Beth Rankin‘s articles and essays. (As far as I’m concerned, the biggest and best example of the paper’s change was with her recent essay on why she wouldn’t and couldn’t take publicity freebies sent her by various restaurants for ethical reasons: those who remember the paper around 2000, especially with the film and music sections, can understand why this was such a big deal.) Now go vote.

Electronic Rubberbands and Other Extravagances

Back in the 1980s, a regular joke among political science majors was that every major advance in weapons technology was sold as a way to make us all safe from the previous advance, culminating with what the Texas comedian Bill Hicks referred to as “Musket repellent!” Mass media work much the same way, but sometimes they go a bit backwards, like a river in flood seeking a new path. The original evolutionary progression from cave paintings was supposed to run from print to Web site to blog to social media posting, all forgetting that the gatekeepers in charge of each new medium had control until they were either supplanted or bypassed. Every single time, they were supplanted and bypassed by what seemed like a fad or frippery until it was far too late to do anything, and many of those fads and fripperies were misidentified as backwards. From that decay grew new verdance, covering the wreckage of the institutions that assumed they would survive it all. Evening newspapers, video rental stores, CD-ROM magazines, GeoCities, MySpace: the vast majority of those wrecks are ones that could have kept going if they hadn’t either assumed that they could tell customers how information was to be consumed or didn’t think this made a difference. Every single time, it didn’t seem like a pushback so much as a gradual retreat: tsunamis generally aren’t big overwhelming waves but a sudden rise in the ocean, and by the time you notice the water on previously dry land rising up to your knees, you’re probably already dead without knowing it.

Right now, that’s the situation with social media: Facebook has done an excellent job at choking off or assimilating any competitors, but it was already a mess for businesses that couldn’t afford the incessant boosts necessary for their followers to know about new developments. Twitter is turning into a specialist’s dream and nightmare, where it’s possible to cross-pollinate with a thousand experts AND leave in disgust because of one Cat Piss Man with nothing better to do that day. As for small businesses such as the Triffid Ranch that just want to pass on new developments without being drowned by algorithms that assume your Uncle Malvert’s contrail ravings are more important to you, it’s already time to look for something new. Or, in our case, something retro.

There’s a lot to be said about E-mail newsletters: a full quarter-century after people stopped asking “what’s that weird thing under your phone number on your business card?”, they’ve become the postcard of electronica. They’re dependable, they’re viewable in just about any environment and on just about any device, and so long as it has actual content as opposed to incessant “BUY MY BOOK” salesflummery, they’re the only form of push media that people actually want. That’s why the Triffid Ranch is proud to announce the opportunity to go back to the Twentieth Century in the hope of riding out the inevitable Facebook crash, and possibly get in some entertainment as well.

So here’s the situation. Sign up for the new Triffid Ranch newsletter either via the link below or via the “Newsletter” page in the main site menu, and you’ll get at least four notices about upcoming developments per year. This includes upcoming Triffid Ranch events and gallery shows, news related to carnivorous plants, and other developments, and will NOT be an excuse for ads. The standard privacy notice applies: your E-mail address or personal information will not be given or sold to any third party under any circumstances without specific written permission. If you like what you read, feel free to pass it along to others. If you decide that you’re done, feel free to unsubscribe without any hard feelings. Any way you look at it, it certainly beats having to sidestep Uncle Malvert to find out what’s going on, doesn’t it?

Make with the clicky

(A quick notice: if you sign up and don’t receive a confirmation email, you didn’t do anything wrong. Between the number of individuals of dubious ethics signing up everyone in their contact lists without permission, and the number of individuals of equally dubious ethics getting mailing lists from elsewhere and spamming everyone in sight, a lack of response may be less due to any error with signup and more with mail servers that have reason to assume any MailChimp mailings are spam. If you don’t get a confirmation within 24 hours, try again, but after checking any spam or junk email folders for the lost wayward confirmation. It’ll be a little traumatized and shocked from being trapped with Bitcoin and Russian dating site spam for so long, but it’ll eventually recover and thank you for saving it from that electronic Lagerstatten. One day, it might return the favor.)